The Bruins’ trade deadline path will become clearer when Jake DeBrusk returns

BOSTON — Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Capitals was the 15th straight game the Bruins played without Jake DeBrusk. Maybe there is no 16.

Due to the condition of his injured left leg, it’s possible doctors will clear No. 1 right wing for the return when the Bruins next hit the ice against the Stars on February 14.

“We’re hoping for Tuesday,” said coach Jim Montgomery. “But we’re not taking any chances.”

Whether DeBrusk returns vs. the Stars or Predators, the point is he’ll be back soon. By putting DeBrusk back on the No. 1 line and the first power-play unit, the Bruins will be at nearly 100 percent — No. 4 center Tomas Nosek remains off the ice with a broken foot — with less than three weeks left March 3rd close of trading.

If DeBrusk tightens against Dallas, the Bruins would have nine games before the deadline to evaluate a near-full-strength lineup. The upcoming road games could then help the Bruins determine where their trade priorities stand.

DeBrusk’s return should streamline the Bruins’ offense. He’s a great match for Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Despite missing 16 games (one of which he sat out in October with a previous injury), DeBrusk is still third on the team with 10 five-a-side goals, behind only David Pastrnak (20) and Bergeron (11). He has performed well as a goaltender in the top power play unit (five goals, six assists).

If DeBrusk returns, he’ll likely oust Craig Smith in the lineup. The 33-year-old right wing was not a liability during DeBrusk’s absence. However, DeBrusk is a far more menacing offensive presence. Case in point: the undisputed second-period wrister on Saturday that Smith sent into Darcy Kuemper’s chest.

It was one of 27 shots the Bruins fired at the Washington goalie. Kuemper wasn’t too busy. The only puck that slipped was a net front tap-in by Nick Foligno after Connor Clifton charged up the ice.

“Our execution wasn’t clean,” Montgomery said. “I thought our performance was good. They expect it to be a little sloppy. It was sloppy in the first. We got better as we expected to get better. In the second we were really good. I didn’t like the beginning of our third. Nevertheless, the effort is there. The execution will come.”

Where Smith ends up after DeBrusk’s return is unknown. He could slip into the #3 row alongside Taylor Hall and Charlie Coyle. This would move Nick Foligno back to the fourth row. Assuming DeBrusk returns to the top unit, David Krejci would likely fall back to PP2 on the power play.

In theory, all of this should get the Bruins’ offense humming. The Bruins like DeBrusk’s speed, hands, hockey feel and fearlessness. The latter trait broke through when he shook a puck to his leg that may have sent other players straight off the ice.

“It’s pretty remarkable the tenacity he’s shown to pull through at a big moment like this,” Montgomery said. “He couldn’t go up the stairs. He used his stick like a stick. That’s four minutes after he scored the winning goal. Bad coaching from me. I had him out there at the last minute. I wasn’t aware that he was in pain too.”

The Bruins are averaging 3.53 goals per game since DeBrusk went down in the Winter Classic. It’s less than the 3.73 goals per game they had before playing at Fenway Park.

So if the pattern continues and offense improves when DeBrusk comes back, it could confirm to General Manager Don Sweeney that defense is the deadline priority. If so, perhaps the Bruins should train their sights with an all-in push to win the Coyotes’ Jakob Chychrun. History says injuries will pile up in the playoffs down the blue line.

Hampus Lindholm (concussion) and Charlie McAvoy (COVID-19) missed time against Carolina last year while Matt Grzelcyk played through a shoulder injury that would require surgery. Two years ago, Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller suffered concussions.

The offense looked sluggish against the capitals. That was partly due to rust after the All-Star break. But it was also because the Capitals are pushing for a wildcard spot.

“What we’re seeing now is teams are fighting for their lives and there’s a lot of desperation,” Montgomery said. “I think it will only be amplified. We need to start putting that together. That’s the thing that’s worrying me coming out of this game, and a little bit of what we saw before the All-Star break.

(Photo by Jake DeBrusk: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) The Bruins’ trade deadline path will become clearer when Jake DeBrusk returns

Russell Falcon

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