Editor’s note- I originally intended to include this post on Jake DeBrusk in the 2nd deep dive I did on B’s prospects, but went on several tangents and so as not to create so ponderous a single post on Frank Vatrano, Jakub Zboril, JFK and Malcolm Subban, pulled this entry out to make it a separate post.
I do this for several reasons- one, I want you to stay with it to understand my logic. I can say honestly that this year, the fact that the Bruins passed on Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor, has been the single most polarizing issue I have had to deal with on Twitter. I realize that there are a lot of folks whose minds are already made up that the B’s blew it and I have to respect that. I hope that those who are in that boat will read this and perhaps at lease acknowledge the other side in this debate. If not, no sweat. For everyone else- this is intended as food for thought. Nothing more, nothing less. Thanks for reading.
Jake DeBrusk, LW
I’m going to say it- I fervently disagree with the criticisms of DeBrusk I see online and in various circles and will leave it at that. This entry will attempt to lay out what I’ve seen from DeBrusk this season and why I have no major problem with the B’s taking him at 14th overall last June.
Context is everything and it isn’t just about pure production when it comes to not only scouting players but making the decision to draft one player over the others. This is the fundamental disconnect that fans who simply read the pre-draft publications and scouting reports have when they approach me on Twitter often times demanding to know why the B’s didn’t draft Kyle Connor or Mathew Barzal. What the fans don’t see are the interviews, nor are they privy to the discussions that the Boston scouts have with coaches or the discussions that take place behind the scenes that take organizational needs and how well a player will fit into what the team is doing into account.
Having said that, and in the interest of full disclosure- Barzal and Connor are both having tremendous seasons after the B’s passed on them, so I understand the angst. I took Kyle Connor at 14 for Boston (back when they had just the one 1st-round pick) in a mock draft held by Allan Mitchell aka Lowetide of TSN 1260 in Edmonton, and had Connor not been there, I would have drafted Zboril for Boston, but all of that is beside the point- the Bruins took DeBrusk, so I’m not going to second-guess here. I’ll leave that to others.
In getting back to DeBrusk, a year ago, he scored 42 goals and was one of the big second-half risers in the 2015 draft. Because he was consistently ranked in the 20’s by most public scouting lists and services (at Red Line Report we had DeBrusk at 25th in our 2015 Draft Guide- for the record that was a couple of spots ahead of *both* Zboril AND Connor. Barzal was just inside the top-10 of the RLR final list.) Headed into the draft, the Bruins had finished with one of the worst team offenses in the NHL in 2014-15 and the lack of scoring punch was a major reason for the team missing the playoffs for the first time in Claude Julien’s tenure. However, we’ve learned an important lesson about the NHL and how a team’s strengths and shortcomings ebb and flow from year to year. This season, offense is not the issue but defense is the biggest stumbling block to the B’s securing a playoff spot and then doing anything of substance if they get in. If the Bruins’ formula for their second of three picks last year was not as much the standard best player available (BPA) and took needs into account as well as fit and how the players came off in the interview process, then DeBrusk makes perfect sense there.
Like Zboril, DeBrusk’s overall numbers are way down from a year ago (he’s at 19 goals and 57 points in 54 games between Swift Current and Red Deer). That admittedly adds fuel to the fire in the debate. DeBrusk missed extended time to a lower body injury (ouch) and wasn’t on his 40-goal pace when he was lost for several weeks. When he returned, he was not even invited to Team Canada’s WJC camp after being there over the summer. Then in late December, he was dealt to the Memorial Cup-host Red Deer Rebels where he started out like gangbusters (hat trick in his third game) only to see his goal scoring production fall off as he got moved around on different lines, away from the red-hot Adam Helewka. But, to point to just the numbers is to miss the larger context which is simple: DeBrusk’s overall game is improved from where it was last year when he was more of a one-dimensional presence.
He’s not a dynamic, explosive skater- which hurts him to a degree because DeBrusk doesn’t wow you the way others do. However, he is one of those players who will suddenly make a key play because he has such a high hockey IQ and has a quick-strike element to his game. I would submit that those who don’t see that in him choose not to see it. The Bruins, however, have recognized it all along. He’s improved his assist-to-60 ratio from what it was a year ago, which is good news even if the goal numbers have plummeted by half. If there is a niggling concern here- we saw a similar drop-off with Jared Knight after the B’s drafted him on the heels of a 36-goal performance only to see him never approach that mark again, even though Knight improved his assist totals and was a better all-around player for London after his draft season. In DeBrusk’s case- the goals drop-off is a valid concern, but it should not be the central driver in the analysis of his overall body of work.
On the other hand, DeBrusk brings the right attitude and effort with him at all times. It’s not difficult to understand why the B’s would have been impressed with him during the interview process. In recognizing the fact that he was trending upwards entering the draft, it’s not just about taking the kid who scores the most or looks the prettiest skating up and down the wing- sometimes the deciding factor is as simple as: do we like this person and can we see him being an ambassador for our organization more so than the other guy who has more bells and whistles? You don’t have to like it, but the game isn’t played by robots and teams are no different than anyone else in life: hard decisions are just that- difficult. Our teams don’t always make the correct ones or at least- the ones we happen to think are right at the time.
Eventually, we’ll know if DeBrusk was a swing and miss or if they were onto something from the get-go. But, as hard as that seems to be for some to grasp- we don’t know that yet in March, 2016. We just don’t.
Current assessment: DeBrusk is progressing just fine as a more complete winger than he was a year ago. The down scoring is disappointing, but we know one thing for certain: at the end of May, he’ll be playing meaningful games. With the WHL playoffs rapidly approaching, don’t be surprised if DeBrusk takes his goal scoring up a notch and Brent Sutter finds a way to get him involved in the Rebels offense to a bigger degree than we’ve seen. It could be the ol’ rope-a-dope move and I wouldn’t put it past the crafty ol’ Sutter brother to do something like that.
At some point, DeBrusk is going to have to justify what the Bruins saw in him but that time is not now. As good as other players look in comparison, this is a marathon and not a sprint. Nobody, regardless of how smart or respected they are, is going to settle the debate less than a year after the players were drafted. Jeff Skinner got a lot of buzz in 2010 for scoring 31 goals as a rookie and winning the Calder Trophy in 2011, when Tyler Seguin didn’t, but who would everyone rather have now in 2016?
In a fast food-mentality culture, everyone wants to declare immediate winners and losers. They want to point to an immediate trend and then trumpet that as an undisputed fact now and in the future just so they can say, “See? I told you so!” I get it- this is a product of the Internet and the many keyboard commandos out there who wouldn’t talk to people in person the way they do online. But in DeBrusk’s case, I do think he’s been treated unfairly- much like B’s fans treated Zach Senyshyn in the initial hours after the Bruins drafted him 15th and before he went out and scored 39 goals and counting. Senyshyn is now a prospect darling for a lot of B’s fans these days- but I’d wager a hefty sum that some of the people who are most excited about him now are some of the ones who flooded the internet with “outrage” over what a “reach” he was at 15. It’s the nature of the beast in the modern information age, of course. (wink, wink; nod, nod)
Maybe DeBrusk lives up to what Boston saw in him, maybe he doesn’t. But the jury’s still out. Assuming he plays in Providence full-time next year (and as a late ’96 he’s signed and eligible to do that), we’ll have a better idea of where’s going by this time in 2017.