Skate Pod: Is now the right time to offer DeBrusk a long-term extension?
Amid all the retirements, roster turnover and speculation about the future of the center position, one pretty important Bruins situation has flown a bit under the radar.
Jake DeBrusk is entering the final year of his contract and could become an unrestricted free agent after the season. How Don Sweeney and the Bruins front office approach this situation will be fascinating to watch.
DeBrusk signed his current two-year, $8 million contract at perhaps the most chaotic time in his career to date: trade deadline day 2022. He was playing that 2021-22 season with an open trade request, but signed a new contract on the morning of March 21 even though he had not yet rescinded said trade request. The first thought many of us had was that perhaps the new contract would make it easier to trade him by that afternoon since he wouldn’t just be a rental.
But DeBrusk wasn’t traded. Instead, he remained in Boston, finished the season strong while playing on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and then finally rescinded his trade request in the offseason.
DeBrusk followed that up by having the best season of his career in 2022-23, tying his career high in goals (27) and setting a career high in points (50) despite missing 18 games due to injuries suffered in the Winter Classic.
Over his last 82 regular-season games, DeBrusk has 37 goals and 66 points. He also took on bigger roles on both the power play and penalty kill last season and improved his two-way game at 5-on-5. If all of that continues this season, he will outperform his $4 million salary for a second straight season.
And make no mistake: A DeBrusk who plays at the level he has over the last season-plus is worth more than $4 million. The Athletic’s contract model, which uses both basic and advanced stats to determine a player’s Net Rating and then assigns a dollar value based on that rating, projects DeBrusk to be worth $8.2 million this season. He has gone from a player with numerous holes in his game to one with very few.
All this raises the question: What will DeBrusk’s next contract look like? And, more importantly, will it be with the Bruins?
Let’s start with the numbers. It is hard to see DeBrusk doubling his salary to $8 million per year, no matter what any model says, unless he really goes off and takes his game to an even higher level this season. We’re talking 40-plus goals, 70-plus points territory.
That certainly isn’t impossible, especially when you look at that 82-game pace highlighted above, but it would be a significant improvement over any of his prior seasons. It would require him to stay healthy, and it would require him to produce at career-best levels without having Bergeron as his center anymore.
What if the Bruins want to try to sign DeBrusk before he has a chance to have another career year, though? Well, a pretty good contract comparison emerged on Tuesday when Brandon Hagel signed an eight-year extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning that carries an annual cap hit of $6.5 million.
It's not apples to apples, but it could provide something of a blueprint. Hagel, also a wing, had 30 goals and 64 points last season, both of which are of course higher than DeBrusk’s career highs. Hagel is also two years younger than the 26-year-old DeBrusk, so you can fairly argue that he has more upside going forward.
But on a per-game basis, their 2022-23 seasons were nearly identical: 0.37 goals and 0.79 points per game for Hagel; 0.42 goals and 0.78 points per game for DeBrusk. DeBrusk put up more goals and points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the analytics tell us he is also a better defensive player.
It also has to be noted that Hagel was only going to be a restricted free agent after this season, while DeBrusk would be unrestricted. Because teams have more control over restricted free agents, this in theory is something that would work against the Bruins in this comparison.
Another comparison would be Washington’s Tom Wilson, who recently signed a seven-year extension with an identical $6.5 million average annual value. DeBrusk and Wilson don’t play a similar style at all – Wilson is way more physical, while DeBrusk is a better scorer, having already topped Wilson’s career high in goals three times despite being three years younger. But they are comparable in the sense that they’re both bona fide top-six wingers, but not stars.
So, given all this, DeBrusk would be well within his rights to seek a long-term deal (seven or eight years) with an average annual value in the $6.5 million neighborhood. The questions for him are: Does he want a long-term deal, or something shorter-term again? And does he want to stay in Boston? We don’t know those answers for sure, but the DeBrusk of last season certainly looked and sounded like someone who once again enjoyed being a Bruin.
The questions for the Bruins are: Do they want to commit to DeBrusk long-term? And are they willing to give him a significant raise? They must be certain that 2020-21 DeBrusk is gone for good and 2022-23 DeBrusk is here to stay if the answers are going to be yes. While some hesitancy to commit to DeBrusk would be understandable given where this relationship was just a year and a half ago, the fact remains that top-six wingers who just entered their prime aren’t exactly easy to come by.
If the answers on either side are no, however, then the Bruins might have to explore trading DeBrusk at some point before this season’s trade deadline rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer.