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Colageo: Boston Bruins at Crossroads with DeBrusk

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Decisions made at the NHL trade deadline come at a cost. They affect careers and families, break hearts and make skilled young skaters play with a career-long chip on their shoulders.

Other franchises benefit. Frank Vatrano comes to mind. Rejected by the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers and only rented by the New York Rangers, Vatrano is thriving as an Anaheim Duck. Will Jakub Lauko (whom the Bruins chose with the third-round pick they got for Vatrano) ever be as impactful as Vatrano looks with that chip on his shoulder?

Amateur scouts burn hundreds of thousands of miles of highway rubber and invest endless days and nights in meat-locker hockey rinks. Then they make their recommendations and hope their guys get picked. If they do, they hope those players develop and have careers. If they’re really fortunate, they hoist the Stanley Cup in a mostly empty rink sometime around 1 in the morning, well after every player has had a go including the black aces.

Dave Lewis, mostly remembered as the cakewalk (assistant) coach in Detroit who fell into quicksand behind the bench of a hodgepodge Boston Bruins roster under construction by the new site manager (Peter Chiarelli), was known in a former life as a stay-at-home defenseman.

Only Lewis was evicted from his home in a 1980 trade made by Islanders GM “Bowtie” Bill Torrey, sent (along with Billy Harris) to Los Angeles for Butch Goring, the missing link between destiny and dynasty. With Goring joining Bryan Trottier down the middle, the Isles became the only team in the expansion (1967-) era to play in five straight Stanley Cup finals.

Goring was so impressive in his 30s that Harry Sinden plucked him off waivers in hopes of mitigating the 1984-85 season loss of Barry Pederson (bicep surgery). Boston almost beat Montreal in the opening round.

Lewis was a veteran defenseman whose wife was nine months pregnant at the time of the trade, but usually it’s the young talent that GM’s reluctantly let go in favor of grizzled veterans proven for the minefield hockey that awaits in the playoffs.

In 2011, Chiarelli dropped Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart off in Atlanta because a Boston Bruins squad more rugged than the current one was deemed not rugged enough on the forward lines. In two deadline moves, a pair of players who would have been franchise regulars if not letter-wearing leaders wound up Winnipeg Jets (the Thrashers moved in 2011).

Would Wheeler have soared with his pal David Krejci when Nathan Horton was lost for the Cup final on the suspended hit by Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome? We only know that Rich Peverley did, and Chris Kelly (acquired from Ottawa) galvanized the third line in a manner that allowed a 19-year-old Tyler Seguin to stay in the playoff lineup.

Moral of the story: Missing out on the meat of Wheeler’s and Stuart’s careers was worth winning the Stanley Cup for the only time in the last 50 seasons.

At present, the N.Y. Rangers (for whom Wheeler is playing out the string) have emerged as the midseason class of the Eastern Conference and project as the most likely to challenge Vegas for the Cup, provided they heed a history lesson of their own provided by then-GM Neil Smith, whose deadline deals assembled the cast of gritty characters who would win the Rangers’ only championship of the last 83 years.

In two deadlines (1993 and ’94), Smith traded a 22-year-old Doug Weight and a 23-year-old Tony Amonte for Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan and Esa Tikkanen. Amonte would go on to score 438 NHL goals counting playoffs, and Weight would amass 1,105 career points, winning the Cup at the end of his career with Carolina.

What will GM Chris Drury do? Last year, he was apparently enamored with Boston’s embarrassment of top-nine riches and beefed up his talent by acquiring wingers Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. The Boston Bruins and N.Y. Rangers both went out in Game 7 of the opening round.

Since then, Drury let both of his elite mercenaries go and made a coaching change, firing Gerard Gallant in favor of Peter Laviolette (whose 12-game cup of NHL coffee as a defenseman was with the Rangers).

If you don’t like the move, don’t forget how Erik Cole crashed the net for Carolina and how Laviolette got the very best out of Scott Hartnell in Philadelphia and Ryan Johansen in Nashville. Drury did not bring in Laviolette to roll the deadline dice the same way he did last year.

The question is which young talent will go and who’s going to New York, but there is no question the Rangers will be harder to play against in April and May if not June.

The Boston Bruins are a tougher read because, while it was imperative that GM Don Sweeney put a competitive team on the ice for their season of franchise-centennial celebrations, it is not crystal as to belief in second-floor, Causeway Street offices that this group can make a less-is-more type of playoff run.

Speaking of player movement, when does push come to shove with Jake DeBrusk, the March 8 trade deadline? July 1?

Except in the case of career decisions being made by franchise legends on a year-to-year basis, rarely have the Boston Bruins re-signed their own unrestricted free agents, of which DeBrusk is pending. The two-year, $8 million extension he signed on March 21, 2022, expires this year, after which he becomes a free agent who can walk, no compensation due the Bruins.

History is not on the side of more DeBrusk.

It has been an eventful career for the son of legacy Oiler Louie DeBrusk. From injuries to a seat in the press box, the revelation of his preseason (2021) trade request, the reparation, thriving into a glorious 2022-23 season skating with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and breaking his leg winning the second Winter Classic at Fenway.

Not to mention – must I? – his role as torchbearer for the 2015 draft (even though it more significantly yielded Brandon Carlo and, in a roundabout way, Pavel Zacha).

Irrespective of Bergeron’s absence, DeBrusk’s 2023 training camp was quiet and his fall quieter. Yes, Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery juggles line combinations but not if he achieves something compelling. It’s taken some time, but DeBrusk is now playing a compelling brand of hockey.

The Bruins were down 2-0 in the second period Saturday night at home against New Jersey when Marchand snuck in on Vitek Vanecek’s puck play behind his own net, then solidified his disruption with a second effort before moving the puck across the slot to DeBrusk, whose aggressive net crash and finish inside the far post set a festive TD Garden crowd on fire. The Bruins never looked back.

This is the DeBrusk of Fenway Park, the player who management and coach keep reminding us is a significant part of the Boston Bruins’ core group. Only he’s not signed, and anyone his age not signed at this point almost never stays.

DeBrusk’s future no longer seems like a matter of nine lives or anything Jekyll-Hyde, it’s probably been decided. Given all that’s happened and he’s still here and playing his best of the season, your guess is as good as mine.

As for Zacha, there are moments when the winger turned center turned winger is a steal, especially when one remembers Eric Haula sitting beside DeBrusk in the infamous healthy scratch the two shared in 2021. But Haula has been a gritty performer for the Devils playing in a similar role.

For the Devils to take it to the next level and not just be a perpetual, next-generation collection of talent, they need Haula to lead the way the Boston Bruins need Zacha to continue his maturation into an impact performer commensurate with his rangy speed down the middle, the likes that the Boston Bruins have arguably never had, Joe Thornton notwithstanding.

In retrospect, Haula-for-Zacha was actually a textbook hockey trade benefitting both parties.

A player who would look good in black and gold in any era: the late, great Ed Sandford, who passed away early in this centennial season.

Finally, social media’s celebrations of 5-foot-8 Alex Debrincat for picking a fight with Nashville captain Roman Josi (6-1, 201) and then winning that brief skirmish are met here with a resounding “meh.”

Josi, 33, is seven years Debrincat’s senior. He’s one of the half-dozen best defensemen of the 21st century and has averaged 25 minutes per game his entire career. If GM Barry Trotz is upset, it should be with Josi’s teammates for allowing that to happen.

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