Why Bruins Should Protect Jake DeBrusk in 2021 NHL Expansion Draft

Could Jake DeBrusk be this expansion draft's William Karlsson? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

As next Wednesday’s expansion draft approaches, each team has one goal: Don’t be Columbus. 

The Blue Jackets were the biggest goats of the Vegas expansion draft back in 2017. Hoping to shed a bad contract and worried about losing players they preferred, they swung a deal with the Knights. Draft picks and David Clarkson’s contract went to Vegas, and as part of the deal, the Golden Knights picked 24-year-old forward William Karlsson. 

At the time, Karlsson was an underwhelming forward who’d been taken high in his draft (53rd overall) but hadn’t done much at the NHL level. With 47 points in 165 games for Columbus, he was an easy enough player for the Blue Jackets to bid adieu.

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Karlsson got to Vegas and broke out, scoring 43 goals in the club’s first season, followed by 24 goals the next year. Leaving him exposed was a disaster for the Blue Jackets. 

So in the days leading up to next Wednesday, every team should be taking a good look at their protected lists and make sure they aren’t leaving this expansion draft’s William Karlsson exposed. 

The Bruins have perhaps two candidates to be the next William Karlsson: Jake DeBrusk and Ondrej Kase. The latter probably wouldn’t be picked in the first place, so the B’s could likely get away with leaving him exposed. 

DeBrusk is a harder choice, but the short answer is that the Bruins should protect him. Take as long as you need to deal with how frustrated that might make you, but it’s the best course of action for the Bruins. 

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Think of it as more asset management than DeBrusk being a core member of the Bruins. They should absolutely look to move him this offseason; they just shouldn’t get rid of him for nothing. 

The Bruins will likely protect seven forwards as part of the seven forward, three defensemen, one goalie option. Five of them should be set in stone (Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith). Trent Frederic also seems a decent bet to be protected.

The decision for the final spot could come down to DeBrusk and restricted free agent Nick Ritchie. DeBrusk scored 27 goals in just 68 games in the 2018-19 campaign. He scored only five in 41 games this past season. Ritchie, meanwhile, played at a 22-goal pace (15 goals in 56 games), albeit thanks to a career-high shooting percentage. 

Both are first-round picks in their mid-20s. DeBrusk is the more talented player, even though he badly needs a change of scenery. That second part likely won’t mean much to Seattle, given that they’d be his new team. They’d probably be glad the Bruins left the more talented player with better career numbers exposed. 

There’s a chance Seattle wouldn’t take Ritchie anyway. Depending on what other defensemen they’re able to pick up in the expansion draft, a young blueliner like Jeremy Lauzon or Connor Clifton might be more appetizing to the expansion franchise. 

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Back to DeBrusk and his future with the Bruins. He’s been streaky throughout his career and this past season was treacherous, but he should still be a decent trade piece. In addition to the aforementioned 27 goals a couple seasons ago, his 19 goals in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season represented a 22-goal pace. 

With one year of a $3.67 million cap hit before becoming a restricted free agent, DeBrusk can be viewed by other teams as a proven (though not dependable) scorer who could become a middle-six fixture. It’s why Seattle would probably be interested in taking him for free, but also why trade partners might view him as a useful buy-low piece. 

So the Bruins should use DeBrusk as a chip to address a position of need — defense or middle-six wing, the latter of which he can’t be trusted to be in Boston, but might be somewhere else. Even if things have probably run their course for him with the B’s, just giving DeBrusk away would be unwise now and potentially embarrassing in the future. 

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