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DeBrusk's future among key questions facing Bruins entering trade deadline

DeBrusk's future among key questions facing Bruins entering trade deadline originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins have a few important decisions to make before Friday's 3 p.m. ET NHL trade deadline.

One of them involves their goaltending duo. Is now the right time to trade Linus Ullmark and try to upgrade another weak point on the roster, such as left-shot defenseman and middle-six scoring depth?

And what about Jake DeBrusk? He is the Bruins' best player who can hit unrestricted free agency this summer. Should they trade or keep the 27-year-old wing?

DeBrusk has expressed a willingness to stay in Boston throughout the season. But there's no extension in place at this point, so it's fair to wonder what his future will look like beyond the 2023-24 campaign.

Look, DeBrusk can be a frustrating player to watch. When he's hot, the goals come in bunches. DeBrusk is, at his best, a goal-scoring power forward who produces offensively and plays with physicality in all three zones. But he's also prone to lengthy goal droughts. He enters Tuesday's showdown against the Edmonton Oilers with only two goals scored in his last 16 games. In fairness, DeBrusk's two-way skill set has improved a lot since he made his NHL debut in 2017. He kills penalties, blocks shots and isn't a liability defensively. But most of his value is scoring goals.

If the Bruins can find a trade involving DeBrusk that nets them a better player, that kind of move should be seriously considered. If the B's can find a trade involving DeBrusk that gives them the assets to make a major move for a defenseman or top-six forward, that also should be seriously considered.

What doesn't make much sense for Boston is trading DeBrusk for an underwhelming return just because there's a risk the team could lose him in free agency for nothing.

DeBrusk is too good to give away for very little. He's also too important to this team's ability to win in the postseason. Despite the inconsistency, DeBrusk has more offensive skill than a lot of the Bruins' wingers. After David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, DeBrusk is the next-best wing on the roster. Middle-six scoring is already a top weakness for the Bruins, and trading DeBrusk without getting a similar or better player in return makes that situation even worse.

DeBrusk's 65 goals since the start of the 2021-22 season are the third-most on the team behind Pastrnak (139) and Marchand (79). The Edmonton native also has a good playoff resume with 36 points in 73 career games. He scored twice as a rookie in Boston's Game 7 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018. He also posted six points (four goals, two assists) in seven games versus the Florida Panthers last season.

Monday night's win over the Leafs in Toronto was a good example of how when DeBrusk is playing with confidence, the Bruins are a much more dangerous team. He helped double Boston's advantage to 2-0 with an assist on Pavel Zacha's power-play goal in the first period, then scored a tally of his own to increase the lead to 3-0 in the second period.

The Bruins have done a pretty good job not letting quality players leave for nothing. But it wouldn't be unprecedented if DeBrusk walked in the summer. The Bruins lost defenseman Torey Krug to free agency after the COVID-impacted 2019-20 season. Krug, like DeBrusk now, was an important part of that Bruins team and its chances of making a deep playoff run.

It wasn't ideal to lose Krug for nothing, but the Bruins did acquire Hampus Lindholm a year-and-a-half later to fill that void on the second pairing. If DeBrusk walks in free agency, the Bruins should have ample salary cap space to replace him with a wing or a center, plus take care of other business (like a Jeremy Swayman extension, for example).

CapFriendly projects the B's to have around $26 million in salary cap space this summer, and that number would increase if Ullmark is traded. Top prospects Fabian Lysell and Georgii Merkulov also are options for next season's roster.

The Bruins are a really good team. They are tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference for a reason. There is no juggernaut in the league right now. The road to the Stanley Cup Final through the East will be tough, but there's no potential playoff opponent who the B's couldn't beat four times in seven games.

DeBrusk is an important player for the Bruins. Trading him just to prevent losing him for nothing in July makes no sense. Keep him for the postseason, and if he joins another team in free agency, so be it.