The fate of the 2019-20 National Hockey League season currently hangs very much in the balance as league officials wait to see if resuming play is a realistic possibility with the world in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic. For two young Boston Bruins, in particular, this is not good news.
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Bruins forwards Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork will be restricted free agents after this season. The problem is, neither was playing his best hockey when play was put on hold on March 12. If the 2019-20 campaign is declared over, they will have lost the chance to step it up down the stretch and in the playoffs to show the team’s coaches and front office that they deserve to still be wearing the Spoked-B come fall.
Inconsistency Plagues DeBrusk
DeBrusk has been a regular in the Bruins lineup for three seasons now. For the majority of that time, he has been the left wing on a second line centered by veteran David Krejci. However, before the league paused play, he found himself relegated at times to third-line duties.
Make no mistake, DeBrusk still has the speed, puck-handing ability and hands that impressed the Bruins’ brass from day one. And, when he gets going, he scores in bunches. The problem is, he also goes through long stretches where he has little-to-no impact on the game at all. In a league where there are countless hungry young players waiting to take your place if you aren’t pulling your weight, that’s a bad thing.
There are likely a few major factors that play into DeBrusk’s inconsistency. First, he has the perhaps misfortune of playing on a line that has been searching for the perfect right wing fit for at least a couple of seasons now. As a result, Krejci and DeBrusk seem to have half a dozen new right wings each season. That makes it hard to build any real sense of line chemistry, and switching lines certainly doesn’t help.
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Another possible factor in DeBrusk’s struggles this season is that the 2019 playoffs took a real physical and emotional toll on the Edmonton native. Bruins fans will well recall the reports that the winger and his family were receiving threats during the seven-game opening round from Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
Leafs fans felt DeBrusk got away with some illegal plays. After a hit that sent him into the boards at the hands of oft-disciplined Nazem Kadri resulted in Kadri being suspended for the remainder of the series, Toronto fans’ ire against DeBrusk escalated.
DeBrusk would later tell the media that, in addition to the threats that forced him to delete his social media accounts during the Leafs series, he had dealt with concussion issues throughout the rest of the playoff run. With a short 2019 offseason, it’s possible that DeBrusk did not have enough time to fully recover from his injuries, and that has held him back in the 2019-20 season.
What a Comeback
On the other hand, Bjork seemed to take full advantage of the time he was afforded to recover from shoulder surgeries that kept him on the sidelines for most of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. When he came to training camp in Sept. 2019, he was in great shape and appeared ready to earn a spot on the NHL roster.
After being sent down to the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, R.I., to start the season, Bjork was called up to Boston in mid-October and never looked back. He was playing so well in the first few months of his time with the big club that he was used for a while on the second line and then seemed to more or less permanently settle in on a stellar third line with Charlie Coyle.
However, after the Bruins returned from their bye week on the last day of January, things started to go downhill for Bjork. His production slowed quite a bit. But it seemed like the real issue was that he was not showing head coach Bruce Cassidy the drive and hunger to stay in the lineup that the bench boss wanted.
As a result, by the time March rolled around and the Bruins had acquired forwards Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase in two deals made just before the trade deadline, Bjork found himself watching most of the games from the press box as a healthy scratch. In the two or three games he was inserted into the lineup in the weeks leading up to the league-wide suspension of play, he got little more than 10 minutes of time on ice.
From an outside perspective, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what happened with Bjork between October and February. But clearly Cassidy saw something in the 23-year-old Wisconsin native’s approach that was keeping the young winger out of the lineup. Perhaps Bjork got too comfortable once he had cemented a roster spot. Only he and the coach will ever know for sure.
If the season does not resume, Bjork may be in an even worse negotiating position than DeBrusk. He missed almost two entire seasons because of injury. Although it seems he is once again healthy, his decline in performance coupled with the health question will likely be a concern for general managers around the league.
Hopefully, even if no more games are played in the 2019-20 campaign, the Bruins will give Bjork another chance with a contract extension. If they do, expect the young winger to heed any exit-interview advice he gets and come into camp raring to go.
DeBrusk and Bjork both have the makings for long-term NHL careers. Even if the Bruins pass on one or both of them when free agency begins, they should garner interest from other teams. What they do with whatever opportunities they are given will be up to them.