Before the puck dropped on opening night, personnel and fans alike of the Boston Bruins knew that this season’s success was to be largely predicated upon the success of its youth.
With just 15 games remaining in the regular season, the 2017-18 Boston Bruins have the third best record in the NHL. Suffice to say, the “youth movement,” as it were, has been a smashing success.
Two such rookies the Bruins have leaned on heavily this season, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen, have traveled similar paths to get to where they are today: For starters, they’re both Western Canada kids. Each spent at least the lion’s share of last season honing their craft in Providence, where both compiled 30 assists en route to a top five finish on the team in points. Both currently have 39 points with the parent club, placing them in a tie for fifth on the team in points once again.
But over the last two weeks, the two have been traveling along completely different trajectories. DeBrusk’s game has shot into the stratosphere, as he has played at the best pace and with the greatest effectiveness and efficiency of his young career. Heinen, on the other hand, has seemingly crashed headlong into the proverbial rookie wall.
Hey Jake, DeBrusk Your Shoulders Off
One of the first things that fans of the Boston Bruins heard about Jake DeBrusk was that he was “a reach” at 14th Overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, followed shortly thereafter by the realization that he was the son of a guy who used to beat people up for a living. Then came some impotent complaints stemming from his first pro season, which he’d spent entirely in Providence. Several players selected after him received at least a cup of coffee with their respective NHL franchises as the season went along, so naturally there was griping and calls for general manager Don Sweeney’s head.
This season, after making an NHL top six prior to his 21st birthday, the Edmonton-native had to endure unfair comparisons and protestations that he wasn’t Matthew Barzal, the more heralded amateur selected two spots behind DeBrusk, whose electric play was regularly featured on various highlight reels.
He was even being overshadowed by his fellow rookies in Boston, as both Anders Bjork and Danton Heinen outscored DeBrusk over the season’s first month-plus (with Heinen doing so in four fewer games). Even fourth-line grinder Tim Schaller had as many goals (three) and points (six) as DeBrusk between the season opener on October 5 and a November 10 loss at Toronto.
He was made a healthy scratch just 24 hours after that loss to Toronto and subsequently responded in a manner that would make any coach at any level proud, rattling-off six points over his next five games. One month later he was benched mid-contest against the New York Rangers and followed up on that particular wake-up call by producing four points over his next two games.
Despite his young age and relative lack of experience, he’s a player who gets better as the challenge rises. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he has elevated his game of late with numerous teammates out hurt and the playoffs less than one month away.
Leading up to the trade deadline, it was reported that the New York Rangers were asking for DeBrusk in return for any deal involving Ryan McDonagh. Nice try, Blueshirts.
Instead, the Bruins traded for McDonagh’s former teammate Rick Nash, held onto DeBrusk and promptly put the two on the same line. The results have been immediate and undeniable.
Prior to the acquisition of Rick Nash, DeBrusk had recorded just one point over his previous six outings. Since the trade, DeBrusk is scoring at point-per-game pace, with seven points in as many games. The pillars on which his game is based (frenetic pace, dogged forechecking) have borne fruit for both himself as well as his teammates at a time when his club is missing significant firepower in the forms of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Backes and defenseman Charlie McAvoy.
Most recently, DeBrusk was arguably his team’s best player during both ends of a back-to-back versus the Chicago Blackhawks, recording four assists and nine shots on goal while averaging over 17:30 of ice time; watch him set up a goal after outworking and committing thievery on three-time Stanley Cup winner and former all-star Brent Seabrook here.
With Anders Bjork out for the remainder of the season and Charlie McAvoy sidelined likely until the onset of the playoffs, the onus to pick up the slack amongst the rookies has fallen largely on the shoulders of DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. The former has withstood the increased load. The latter, unfortunately, has buckled.
Hold on to Your Heinen
When the Bruins played Nashville in their home opener on October 5, five rookies were in the Boston lineup.
Danton Heinen was not one of them.
After a competitive camp following his eruption in last season’s AHL playoffs, Heinen was simply a victim of the new numbers game. He had been ever-so-marginally outplayed by his fellow youngsters while possessing a two-way contract, meaning he was bound for Providence.
After putting up a whopping eight points in just four AHL games, Heinen was recalled for good ahead of the team’s October 26 clash versus the San Jose Sharks, in which Heinen recorded the lone multi-goal game of his career. He has been a lineup mainstay since.
His refined two-way game, composure and opportunistic playmaking fit in perfectly alongside Riley Nash and David Backes, giving the Bruins precisely the kind of impactful three-zone third line which they had so dearly lacked during each of the previous three seasons.
After recording 12 points in his first 20 games, Heinen had himself a Merry Christmas once the calendar turned to December. Between December 4 and December 30, the former University of Denver star turned back the clock to his college days, scoring at better than a point per game rate (14 points in 13 games). His personal success was a boon to his streaking team and for a brief moment even turned him into a Calder Trophy dark horse.
In mid-January, Heinen was just three points back from the rookie lead in points. As of today, that number has grown to 30.
Part of that has to do with the force of nature that is Mathew Barzal. The rest can be attributed to the “rookie wall.”
The native of Langley, British Columbia has just one point since February 10 (14 games). Along the way, his ice time has marginally (yet steadily) decreased each month, topping out at an average of over 16 minutes per game in December and having been reduced to just 12 minutes per contest in March. Additionally, he was a healthy scratch for the first and only time this season on March 1 versus Pittsburgh.
Dating back to the trade deadline, he has zero points in seven games. Furthermore, he hasn’t scored a goal since February 6.
In his defense, his line has been completely broken up of late. Riley Nash has moved up to the top line with Patrice Bergeron out hurt while David Backes has been suspended for the last two contests. On the other hand, Heinen wasn’t having much luck before the roster turmoil either.
These kinds of streaks happen to virtually every rookie at one point or another; patience is required. But when juxtaposed with the absolute heater that DeBrusk has been enjoying of late, Heinen’s struggles are beginning to stick out like sore thumbs.
His attention to detail and reliability away from the puck have enabled him to stay in the lineup despite the pronounced scoring slump in which he currently finds himself. But with veteran newcomers Brian Gionta and Tommy Wingels now crowding the bottom six picture (and playing extremely well, no less), it’s not a stretch to suggest that further struggles could very well lead to Heinen being the odd-man out should the Bruins field a healthy lineup when the playoffs begin.
That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world (or precedented) for those clamoring about the “need to play the kids,” as though his 39 points and 60-plus games will somehow vanish from the records and would be all for naught if he doesn’t dress for Game One of the playoffs. Tyler Seguin played just 13 of 25 playoff games in 2011 after dressing for 74 regular season contests. Dougie Hamilton played in just 7 of 22 playoff games in 2013 after starting all but six of the team’s regular season tilts.
A slump like his as well as Boston’s recent injury redux are precisely the reasons why Don Sweeney acquired veteran depth at the deadline. So, you know, breathe.
With so many bodies currently unavailable, the respective surges and swoons in play from Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen have impacted the Bruins. The former is playing the best hockey of his career at just the right time. The latter looks like a shadow of his December self, gripping his stick so tightly fans in the loge seats can probably hear the graphite straining.
Regardless, both have already displayed enough during their respective rookie campaigns to paint a picture of a very bright future, hopefully spent entirely with the Black and Gold.
Should Heinen rediscover his touch it would likely go a long way toward turning the Bruins back into the team that was running foes out of the barn, as opposed to relying on miraculous comebacks and Lady Luck to overcome bubble teams (and worse). Should that return to form not arrive in time for this year’s playoffs the Bruins at least have a contingency plan in place in the form of a couple old guys who are simply thriving since their arrival.
Rookies get hot. Rookies go cold. Trends aside, the Boston Bruins have two keepers in Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. The smart money is on both of them playing pivotal roles down the stretch and into the playoffs.