At the start of May, Boston Bruins’ left winger Jake DeBrusk was approaching the end of his worst regular season in his four year career and facing pressure from fans, media, and his own head coach to perform better. Speculations were flying around about what went wrong, what his future would look like, and whether he could get back on track in time to contribute to the Bruins’ Stanley Cup push in the playoffs.
“I understand my time will come,” DeBrusk said on May 6th in a media call. “[I’m] just trying to stay positive… It’s just a matter of being ready for your opportunity and doing what you can, because I know I can help this team.”
I wrote recently about DeBrusk’s struggles this year and what it would take to get him back to performing at a high level. The playoffs seemed to be a perfect reset for the winger to put his forgettable 2021 regular season behind him and revitalize his game. However, there was no guarantee that DeBrusk would be able to fulfill these hopes; after all, he had been made a healthy scratch multiple times already with no lasting improvement and getting moved to the fourth line produced only modest results in the final weeks of the season.
Now, with three games of the 2021 playoffs in the books, DeBrusk seems like a whole new player. He has two goals against the Washington Capitals, one that was a sniper shot off of a faceoff and the other that came off a rebound after some hard work in front of the net. The most notable difference is his emotion level; DeBrusk seems to be enjoying the game again, and the return of his enthusiasm and intensity is a very good sign for the Bruins. The positive environment that he helps create both on and off the ice will be important for the resilience and long-term stamina of the team as they hope to go deep into the postseason.
Rediscovered Playing Identity
In my previous analysis of DeBrusk, I predicted that the root of his struggles was from playing in a role that didn’t match his strengths; his goals come in the highest volume when he is driving to the net and keeping his stick on the ice for tip-ins and rebounds. In a small sample size, we’ve seen him come back to this style of play again, with one of his goals coming from this exact formula. It is hard to say whether this is what caused his energy level to come back or if it was the other way around. Either way, there’s a clear correlation between the two, and we can see that DeBrusk feels like his old self when he is back to a well-fitting playing style.
The opening goal in Game 2: ✔️
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 17, 2021
The other beneficiary of this newfound energy is his forechecking, something that has historically been a big part of DeBrusk’s game. So far in the playoffs, he has shown tenacity and a puck-hungry mentality while in the offensive zone, which has led to him driving plays rather than having them die on his stick. This is what has made him one of the Bruins’ difference-makers.
One thing I did not expect, however, was the combination of linemates that have facilitated his success. His previous performances on a line with Charlie Coyle and Nick Ritchie were unimpressive and seemed unappealing for a third line during the regular season, but Game 2 and Game 3 showed a different story. The trio was a major factor in the Bruins’ wins, with Coyle and DeBrusk, in particular, finding a rhythm in the offensive zone that included one of DeBrusk’s goals and a nifty assist by the centre. This demonstrates that the 24-year-old has found success independent of his position in the lineup. His flexibility and unwavering intensity, regardless of position, will be a huge asset to the team.
DeBrusk is only 24 years old, and it’s possible that all he really needed was a fresh start to get his confidence back. However, his style of play now is much more similar to what it looked like a few years ago when he has his most successful seasons: bold forechecking, speed to the net, and high energy. It seems like he has finally remembered what his strengths are, and with that, his offensive capabilities have returned.
Consistency Is the Next Challenge
DeBrusk has always been known to be a streaky player – we’ve seen him go through long scoring droughts with lots of frustration, only for him to suddenly catch fire and go on a blazing hot goal-scoring tear. Sometimes, a streak of bad luck or a mistake can throw a young player like DeBrusk off his game for a period of time. The task for him now is to find a way to sustain the current success he has in the first few games of the playoffs rather than let himself fall back into a slump.
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DeBrusk showed some promise of this in the final few games of the regular season; despite getting demoted to the fourth line and fighting the frustrations of a disappointing season, he pieced together a string of respectable performances that demonstrated his effort to improve. Most importantly, he stuck with it even when he wasn’t getting rewarded for his efforts, as his final eight games yielded only one goal. Going through a period of tough luck without losing sight of his strengths as a player, as well as keeping up a high level of intensity, is the key for DeBrusk to sustain his success. This may be why he is now getting rewarded in the playoffs setting – battling it out at the end of the season was necessary for him to get to a new level.
If DeBrusk can achieve consistency, he would become a significant weapon on the Bruins’ offense once again, and the team’s scoring depth would be devastating for opponents. Perhaps it would bring him closer to those 40+ points per season from his early career and establish him as a star forward that the Bruins will want to keep around for a long time.
Playoffs and DeBrusk Go Together
This time of year seems to be the one that DeBrusk loves the most. He thrives off of the high intensity and emotional setting of the postseason, which puts his style of play front and center. We’ve seen players of this type who seem to come alive for the playoffs and make a craft out of it – former NHLer Justin Williams, for example, was well-known for performing at his best in high-stake games throughout his career, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Game 7.”
DeBrusk’s regular-season performance must be improved, but the impact he continues to make in the playoffs is an important asset. His 25 points over the course of four postseasons are indicative of his ability to step up when it matters and how well his personality as a player fits into that environment. This is why, if you look at DeBrusk’s history, his current success makes perfect sense: it’s no coincidence that one of the most spirited players in the Bruins’ locker room has a natural compatibility with playoff hockey.