By Neal Lyons
From the moment Victor Hedman unceremoniously ended the Boston Bruins 2020 campaign, the conversation shifted toward what the team would need to do in the offseason to come back improved for next year. One of the names coming up often is Jake Debrusk’s. Some have become impatient with a perceived lack of consistency, leisurely development, and an unfortunate ability to go on extended scoring droughts. For those in this camp, the possibility of moving him seems intriguing. He’s an RFA, looking for a more significant commitment, so maybe it’s merely about freeing up that money to go in another direction.
The accusations aren’t entirely unwarranted. Debrusk hasn’t been a model of consistency over his three years with the Bruins and, while he isn’t necessarily a detriment to the team when he isn’t scoring, he’s not wildly useful either. Those frustrating scoring slumps are very real as well. He went into the COVID break with just one point in the final 14 games. What made that slump even more disappointing was that he’d put up 14 points in his 13 games, previous to that. This sort of rollercoaster is what tends to frustrate fans. Last year, he put up just 3 points in 15 games and then followed it up by finishing off the season with 23 points in the final 21 matchups.
So which version is closer to the real Jake Debrusk? It’s not hard to see why some are becoming tired of waiting for the answer, and it’s possible that the future of the Boston Bruins doesn’t include Jake Debrusk, but let me explain why I’m wary of moving on at this stage in his career.
About 15 years ago, I read an article in the Hockey News which has stuck with me ever since. It suggested that a player’s most likely breakout season was his fourth. Something like 24% of players sees a 25% jump in their production in their 4th season, with another 21% seeing that boost in their 5th. After reading the article, it amazed me just how often this occurred. Over time, I also noticed that this “4th-year rule” seemed to line up with a player’s 24-year-old season commonly. Both became indicators I would look out for whenever picking my fantasy teams or casting predictions with friends.
Then, last year, I read a piece from @dobberhockey, which broke it down further, using a 200 game threshold as an even more reliable reference point. They referred to it as their “80/20 rule” because, in their exhaustive research, they found that 80% of players fall into this category. The remaining 20% are the exceptions. These exceptions either succeed almost immediately or never come close to reaching their expectations.
We’ve seen enough from Debrusk to confidently say that he doesn’t fall into the 20% grouping. He’s not an Eichel or McDavid. Nor is he a Curtis Lazar or Kerby Reichel. So, more or less, by default, we’re left to assume that he’ll be a member of their 80% classification.
What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that Jake falls into all three of the target zones. He’s entering his 4th season, his 24-year-old season, and 203 career National Hockey League games.
Based on the details above, I expect Debrusk, if healthy, to put up around 30 goals and 55 points next year. That kind of potential is tough to walk away from unless the return is just as promising. Keep in mind, and this is not his peak we’re discussing. Merely the point at which he should break out. Typically, a player continues to trend up through their 25-28-year-old seasons, peaking offensively somewhere in that range.
For examples of this system action, last year happened to be a very good season for it.
Through 197 games, Oliver Bjorkstrand was a career .49 ppg player. His NHL career-high was 11 goals and 40 points. He was entering his 24-year-old season, his 5th in the NHL (the first was just 12 games).
This year Bjorkstrand was a .73 ppg player. His 82 game pace was 35 goals and 60 points.
Through 175 games, Jakub Vrana was a career .45 ppg player. His NHL career-high was 24 goals and 47 points. He was entering his 23-year-old season (turned 24 in February), his 4th in the NHL.
This year Vrana was a .75 ppg player. His 82 game pace was 30 goals and 62 points.
Through 223 games, Kevin Fiala was a career .47 ppg player. His NHL career-high was 23 goals and 48 points. He was entering his 23-year-old season, but his 4th in the NHL.
This year Fiala was a .84 ppg player. His 82 game pace was 29 goals and 69 points.
Through 233 games, fellow 2015 draftee, Travis Konecny was a .53 ppg player. His NHL career high was 24 goals and 49 points, entering his 4th season in the NHL.
This year Konecny was a .92 ppg player. His 82 game pace was 30 goals and 76 points.
We could also throw Anthony Mantha into the mix. He entered the season with 217 games under his belt. Injuries have plagued him over the last couple of seasons, but he was fresh off a career-high 48 points in 67 games from the year before. This year, his 67 game pace was 59 points—a single-season improvement of 23%.
Several of these players, namely Bjorkstrand, Vrana & Fiala, were not unlike Debrusk, with fans and management wondering if they had anything more to give. The thing is, Jake has produced more steadily than any of the above mentioned had before their breakouts this year. Since entering the league, he sits 4th on the Bruins in goals.
For a fair comparison, Debrusk is a career .59 ppg, through 203 games. His NHL career-high is 27 goals and 42 points. He is entering his 24-year-old season, his 4th in the NHL.
There are certainly no guarantees in life, but this doesn’t seem like the best time to be considering parting ways with Jake Debrusk. Unless the return is too good to be true, Sweeney and company need to be careful. The last thing they want to do is trade away their most promising piece from the 1st round, in 2015, only to watch it flourish somewhere else.