What should Bruins do with Jake DeBrusk as NHL trade deadline nears?

What should Bruins do with Jake DeBrusk as NHL trade deadline nears? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins locked up David Pastrnak to the richest contract in team history a few hours before the trade deadline last season. Will we see another veteran wing sign an extension with the B's before this year's NHL trade deadline on March 8?

Jake DeBrusk is Boston's best forward able to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. His two-year, $8 million contract will expire after the season.

The trade deadline will be a month away Thursday. Is the situation starting to feel real for DeBrusk?

"Looking at it, I think it's felt pretty real all year, to be honest," DeBrusk told reporters Sunday. "I think ever since the starting of training camp it's one of those things you want to get done as fast as possible. But obviously, we’re here now. And when it comes to, I guess, thoughts on that — I don’t really have any that’s fresh. It's a month and a half until trade deadline and I hope it gets done quick."

Does DeBrusk have optimism that something will get done?

“I always have optimism,” DeBrusk said. “I feel like it would be pretty depressing if I didn't have optimism that I'd be here. It's one of those things that I hope it gets done. You know, I have an agent for a reason. I've obviously been in this organization for my whole career. I feel like I know where I stand in this lineup. I feel like I know where I am with the guys in this room, and the city as well, the highs and lows."

DeBrusk, based on the comments above, wants to be here. The real question is, how much do the Bruins value DeBrusk?

The 2015 first-round pick has had a roller-coaster career in Boston. He scored the winning goal in Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs as a rookie during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also was a healthy scratch at times in 2021-22 -- Bruce Cassidy's final season as head coach -- and even requested a trade. The Bruins kept DeBrusk, and he later rescinded that request. It's worked out well for both sides since.

DeBrusk tied a career high with 27 goals last season. He's also become a much better two-way player under head coach Jim Montgomery. DeBrusk's 1:52 of shorthanded ice time per game ranks third among B's forwards this season. Two years ago he averaged just 0:38 of time on the penalty kill per contest. DeBrusk contributes in other areas when he's not scoring goals consistently. That wasn't really the case earlier in his career.

But he can still be a frustrating player sometimes, and a lot of it boils down to inconsistency. DeBrusk can be pretty hot and cold as a goal scorer. For example: He scored only one goal over the first 16 games of the season. He didn't score in the first 11 games of December. But since the holiday break ended on Dec. 26, he has tallied 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in his last 16 games.

Despite the inconsistency, keeping DeBrusk long term is absolutely the right move, and there are several reasons why.

For starters, the B's can afford it. They are projected to have around $28 million in salary cap space this summer, per CapFriendly. That's enough to re-sign DeBrusk and Jeremy Swayman and fill out the rest of the roster. Signing DeBrusk won't cripple their salary cap situation at all.

It also would be asset mismanagement to not extend DeBrusk and see him walk for nothing as a free agent this summer. He's too valuable of a player to let go like that. If you sign him to an extension, you can always trade him at some point later if the situation changes.

The free agent class this summer also isn't great, particularly among forwards. Here are the top goal scorers (as of Feb. 5) among players eligible to be unrestricted free agents in July:

  1. Sam Reinhart, RW, FLA: 37 goals

  2. Jonathan Marchessault, RW, VGK: 25 goals

  3. Jake Guentzel, LW, PIT: 22 goals

  4. Steven Stamkos, C, TBL: 21 goals

  5. Tyler Toffoli, RW, NJD: 21 goals

  6. Joe Pavelski, RW, DAL: 19 goals

  7. Matt Duchene, C/RW, DAL: 17 goals

  8. Teuvo Teravainen, LW, CAR: 16 goals

  9. Adam Henrique, C, NJD: 15 goals

  10. Anthony Mantha, LW, WSH: 15 goals

How many of these players would you rather have than DeBrusk long-term? In the short term, Steven Stamkos is still an elite center, but what are the odds he leaves the Tampa Bay Lightning? Jake Guentzel is a very good goal scorer, but he's two years older than DeBrusk and his stats wouldn't be what they are if he didn't play the vast majority of his ice time alongside Sidney Crosby.

DeBrusk is at least two years younger than all of these players. He already has three seasons of 25-plus goals. This season he is scoring at a 20.5-goal pace over 82 games. Players who can be relied on to hit the 20-goal mark on an annual basis are both not easy to find and not cheap to acquire. Add in DeBrusk's improved defensive abilities, plus the fact that he is versatile enough to produce offensively at left and right wing, and you start to understand how valuable he is to the Bruins.

DeBrusk's 51 even-strength goals rank 55th among all players since the start of the 2021-22 season. Players with fewer even-strength goals during that span include Tomas Hertl, Nik Ehlers, Brad Marchand, Tim Stutzle, Aleksander Barkov, Nazem Kadri, Nico Hischier, Elias Lindholm, Sam Reinhart, Owen Tippett, John Tavares, Brock Boeser and many others.

If we look at just the Bruins, the numbers show DeBrusk has been one of the team's most productive players at even strength since the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign.

!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",(function(a){if(void 0!["datawrapper-height"]){var e=document.querySelectorAll("iframe");for(var t in["datawrapper-height"])for(var r=0;r<e.length;r++)if(e[r].contentWindow===a.source){var["datawrapper-height"][t]+"px";e[r].style.height=i}}}))}();

What would be a reasonable extension for DeBrusk?

A six-to-eight year deal worth between $5 million and $6.5 million per season makes sense. One interesting comparable is Lightning left wing Brandon Hagel, who signed an eight-year extension worth $52 million ($6.5 million salary cap hit) last August.

Hagel had 64 goals in 211 career games when he signed that deal, which comes out to 0.303 goals per game. DeBrusk currently has 131 goals in 432 career games, or 0.303 per contest. Hagel will be 26 when his extension kicks in next season. DeBrusk will be 28 in October. You could argue Hagel is a little better than DeBrusk, but not by much.

The Philadelphia Flyers signed left wing Owen Tippett to an eight-year, $49.6 million extension ($6.2 million cap hit) a few weeks ago. Tippett, like DeBrusk, scored a career-high 27 goals last season. He has 18 for the Flyers in 46 games this year. But before 2022-23, Tippett had never scored more than six goals in a single campaign. He's also nowhere near as good defensively as DeBrusk.

Anything below $6.5 million per season for DeBrusk would be a good deal for the Bruins. Players like him would fetch around that amount on the open market.

If the Bruins are able to find an upgrade to DeBrusk and want to include him in a deal for that player before the trade deadline, so be it. But if you look at the players rumored to be available, there aren't many legit top-six forwards out there.

DeBrusk's age, offensive skill, versatility and experience with the Bruins make him a strong candidate to keep long term. Finding a similar player for less money would likely prove difficult.