By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
Armed with a new contract and an extended off-season of working on his fitness, the expectations were sky-high for Jake DeBrusk as he began his fourth season in the NHL. The six-foot-tall, 188-pound winger scored 16 times in his rookie year and followed that up with a 27-goal effort in his sophomore season. In the pandemic-shortened season, he lit the lamp 19 times in 65 appearances. This season, DeBrusk had just two goals to his name in 18 games played and was recently relegated to the press box as a healthy scratch. With the 24-year old wildly underperforming one must ask, what is going on with Jake DeBrusk? Is he mired in an epic stretch of bad luck, not putting in the effort, is something off in his game, or are other variables at play? Let’s break it all down and see if we can find some meaning in all the madness.
When reviewing DeBrusk’s numbers, the most glaring one that stands out is 5.4%. That would be his shooting percentage which was 2.9% before potting his second of the season earlier this week. For reference, fourth-liner Sean Kuraly has a career shooting percentage of 5.3. Number 74 is a career 12.7% shooter and has never finished a season below 11.2%, so his current number might just be horrid luck that is already starting to regress to the mean. While this is not the whole story, as we will see, it does appear some level of bad luck is a factor.
Much of the narrative around DeBrusk throughout his young career has centered on inconsistency. He scores in bursts and then will go long stretches without a goal, mind you none quite as dire as the current skid. With that, fans have at times been critical of his effort level and his head coach, Bruce Cassidy, has recently fueled those fires. The coach was out of answers this week on how to motivate, prod, and will DeBrusk back to relevance and subsequently went with the nuclear option, banishing DeBrusk to the ninth floor. The early returns in his performance against the Rangers seem promising but again, finding a degree of consistency moving forward will be key.
“Effort” is a vague term though and can be used to describe so many things. To again reference Sean Kuraly, he usually works hard, but we don’t expect a lot of goal scoring from him (even when has three 2v1s in a single game!). Therefore it’s worth digging into what specifically Cassidy means by effort. Cassidy further clarified he wants DeBrusk to create more turnovers on the forecheck andto get inside the dots more on offense. A case in point is DeBrusk’s goal against the Rangers where he got in on the forecheck, then circled back to the hashmark before receiving a punctual David Krejci pass.
To further the coach’s rationale we can look back at a piece we did before the season where we looked at how Jake DeBrusk scores goals. The piece can inform our discussion of where the wingers’ game may be off this season. While there are many insights in the piece, one of the key takeaways is DeBrusk needs to get to the net, or as Cassidy put it, play between the dots. 12 of the rugged wingers’ 19 goals last season came right from the goalmouth.
The coach clearly believes that his maligned winger is not getting to the net. Is that the case? Analyzing the spray charts below, it is partially true. We have yet to see the clustering of chances from right on top of the goalie, DeBrusk’s bread and butter, and an area he talked about bulking up for in the off-season. Also missing entirely are shots from the high slot. Not getting these types of opportunities has reduced his individual expected goal totals which would suggest he is not generating enough chances. He sits eighth amongst Bruins forwards in the category at 5v5 this season while last year he finished third. It is also the lowest output of his career.
While the onus is on the player to make the most of their time on the ice there is no question DeBrusk has been bounced all over the lineup this season in addition to missing some time with injury. The player, who has been plagued by inconsistency, has received no consistency in his linemates. At 5v5 he has been centered 46 minutes by Patrice Bergeron, 44 by David Krejci, 45 by Charlie Coyle, and 55 by rookie Jack Studnicka (though not all at center). DeBrusk is not a play driver and is reliant on his teammates in many ways. Each of those centerman has vastly different styles which have likely hindered his ability to hone in on his own game, though his lines have performed well with him on them in limited flashes.
If we look back at the spray chart from the 2019-20 season we can also see that a lot of DeBrusk’s shots come from the left side circle. That makes sense as his natural position is left wing. This season he has played right wing, his off-side, on many occasions. It’s worth acknowledging that playing out of position may have an adverse effect on his offense as well.
His ice time has also been reduced this season, likely a product of his play, but also a factor in him producing less. He is averaging 14:49 minutes a night, his lowest total excluding his rookie year. However, the most glaring change in his usage comes on the powerplay. Last season DeBrusk averaged 2:33 minutes a night on the man advantage and logged most of those on a prolific top unit. This year he has only logged 1:20 minutes per night and done so on a pedestrian second grouping. Last season, 37% of the wingers’ goals came in his role as the net-front presence on the Bruins vaunted powerplay. Supplanted by Nick Ritchie this season, one player has trended in the right direction and the other in the opposite, perhaps not a coincidence.
A perfect storm
Jake DeBrusk is mired in a perfect storm of variables at the moment, all compounding his struggles. A run of bad shooting luck, being bounced around the lineup, and losing out on money-making powerplay time are out of the 24-year old’s control but have certainly impacted his output. However, there is more he can do to hold up his end of the bargain. He can increase his battle level on 1v1s and on the forecheck. As Fluto Shinzawa stated in The Athletic, DeBrusk must also play to his strengths and avoid playing on the perimeter. While the massive expectations from this off-season may not be met, DeBrusk can still salvage this season with some small tweaks to his game. With a little luck and some opportunities, he may even be able to return to his normal level of output. We may have already witnessed a season turning point for the important middle-six forward in an excellent performance this week against the Rangers.
Data courtesy of Hockey-Reference, NaturalStatTrick, and HockeyViz