Preseason games may not mean much with respect to results. They mean a whole lot when it comes to evaluating talent. While both rosters are a mix of NHL players, hopeful NHL players, or players to fill out a roster; how someone performs in preseason games can make a difference between making the roster or not. At the least, the coaches can collect tape and data on a player and use it to understand what they could do. A stand out player that is not already an established NHLer, like a prospect, does get consideration as to whether he can play in the NHL. The Devils have one of those stand out players in their preseason so far: 19-year old left winger Jesper Bratt. Should he start with the New Jersey Devils in October? Let’s discuss the question.
The Bratt Ascension
Jesper Bratt was signed to an entry level contract back on May 12, 2017. This kicked off a big Summer for the 2016 sixth-round selection. He participated in the Devils’ prospect development camp, he was drafted by the London Knights in the Canadian Hockey League’s Import Draft, and he made his commitment to play for London in August. Bratt started to receive more notice with his play in the Prospect Challenge tourney earlier in September. Bratt showcased his speed, his hands on the puck, and his tendency to go after pucks on the forecheck, even scoring a goal. He looked promising in those three games. This has multiplied in this preseason.
Bratt has appeared in three of the team’s four games and has grown in each one. Here is his statline from each game:
- 9/18 vs. Washington - 13:05 TOI (8:43 EV, 3:34 PP, 0:48 SH), 1 Assist, 2 SOG, 2 Attempts, 9 CF, 1 CA (90 CF%)
- 9/21 at Montreal - 18:11 TOI (11:50 EV, 3:14 PP, 3:07 SH), 2 Goals (1 ENG), 3 SOG, 3 Attempts, 4 CF, 4 CA (50 CF%)
- 9/23 vs. NY Rangers - 18:08 TOI (11:42 EV, 4:33 PP, 1:53 SH), 1 Assist, 3 SOG, 5 Attempts, 9 CF, 8 CA (52.9% CF)
That big jump in ice time came with increased minutes on the penalty kill and even strength. Bratt has responded well to it. In these three games, Bratt has a point streak, 2-3 shots per game, and when he is on the ice, the Devils have been more than breaking even in 5-on-5 play. It is fair to say that, Bratt has been rewarded for his good play. It is also fair to say that what was seen in the prospect challenge has shown up in these NHL preseason games. He is using his speed effectively. He is forechecking well. He is working hard on the boards, not letting his smaller stature be a negative. He is still without a penalty in a preseason where the Devils have conceded at least eight calls per night. I’m struggling to think which skaters have been that much better than Bratt in preseason so far.
What helps the Bratt-starting-in-the-NHL argument is what happened after last year’s preseason. Blake Speers was a junior prospect like Bratt is now and his play garnered him some NHL appearances. While he became a professional, Miles Wood also initially made the team before being sent down. Both were after impressing the staff in preseason. This is precedent that John Hynes and Ray Shero will reward standout performances with some NHL action.
So does this all mean he should get some games in the NHL right away? On it’s own, in my view, yes. Is there room for him on the roster? Let’s look at that next.
The Projected Left Wings
Bratt is a left wing so let’s go through the left wingers on the team. Taylor Hall is a lock. After that, it is up for grabs.
Marcus Johansson has been used at center so far in preseason, but I have not been impressed. Given that Nico Hischier took over his spot during the Montreal game, I think the coaches may not think it is working so well either. While he can play all three forward positions, Johansson was most recently a left wing in Washington. If John Hynes and his staff follow that, then he’s likely the second left wing on the team behind Hall. That is a guess and that may not even happen based on what happens in this coming week. Similarly, Pavel Zacha was used as a left wing and a center last season. I think Zacha has played well at center in this preseason. With Travis Zajac being out for several months, I think Zacha would stay as a center for the time being. Therefore, I do not think Zacha would block out a chance for Bratt to play. Johansson, though, is a strong maybe.
Miles Wood became a regular left winger last season. He has shown a lot of raw talent. He is very fast. He can be physical. He has a lot to learn still. Wood has not really done much in preseason. It could be argued he needs to develop further in Binghamton. This is a possibility as he is ineligible for waivers for this season, per Cap Friendly. If the Devils do not see him as a lock for the NHL roster, then that makes it more likely for someone like Bratt to take a spot. If they do based on what happened last season, it hurts Bratt’s cause.
Another potential person to be in Bratt’s way is John Quenneville. He did get a taste of the NHL last season. While he has not done all that well in preseason, he continued to play with some of the more notable names in his games. His game against the Rangers was arguably his best one so far. Don’t get me wrong; Bratt has out-performed Quenneville in this preseason. Yet, if he gets another chance and performs well, then the Devils could have a tough decision on their hands. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think Quenneville needs further seasoning in the AHL. But preseason is not over yet.
Still, unless the Devils make some other changes like moving Joseph Blandisi to left wing, there could be room for Bratt to start in New Jersey. It may be on a third or a fourth line, but it would be another opportunity for Bratt to show his worth. And if he is able to sparkle against full NHL teams, then the Devils have to consider whether they start his contract now or send him back to London. As far as I can tell though, Bratt has not only played well enough to receive a few NHL games, the Devils have room on the roster to make that happen for a little bit.
So what’s the argument against?
What’s the Value?
This is more of an issue of philosophy in player development, but here’s how I can see an argument against that. A player on an entry level contract before they turn 20 can play up to nine NHL games before their contract slides. Nine games. Is it worth keeping Bratt around to give him up to nine appearances in 2017-18?
Wood and Speers made the New Jersey Devils last season. What did they do? Not a whole lot. Wood played 11:10 and 9:41 in two games, took two penalties, took only one shot on net, and went right back to Albany. Speers played in three games with ice times of 7:53, 12:50, and 7:44 with one shot per game and no points. He was then returned to Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL. Both were kept to limited use at best and made little positive impact on the games they played in. While I’m sure they learned quite a bit and it was a great experience for them, I doubt whether those couple of games really helped them along as players. Speers has not really impressed this year, or at least as well as he did last year. Wood has not done much in this month; although, his NHL spot may be secured based on how the coaches used him last season.
Sure, it would be a good reward for Bratt’s stand out play in September. Should he maintain it this week, then I could see him getting some NHL appearances. Again, it would definitely be memorable and he would have had a little experience of the NHL life. But player development is not like a role playing game where playing in more difficult games will yield more experience, which will result in a better player. Playing less than twelve minutes in the NHL is not necessarily better than playing over sixteen minutes plus special teams play in the OHL. Going up against far better players than those in preseason may not yield as many lessons learned for him. There is no hard and fast rule for what is best for a prospect. A few games may do Bratt some good but based on Speers and Wood It is in the interest of everyone involved that the Devils do what is best for Bratt’s development. That might not be putting him in the NHL right away.
It comes down to this: Is playing a couple of NHL games adding any value to Bratt as a player, if the plan is to send him to London for the majority of the 2017-18 season? How the Devils answer that should answer whether he should start in New Jersey this season.
My Take, Your Take
Despite the argument against I would not be surprised if we saw Bratt wear #63 at the home opener. I’ve really enjoyed how he has played in preseason. The big bumps in ice time and his usage as a forechecker at even strength and the penalty kill are all signs to me that the coaches like what they see from him. We have precedent that young players who have exceeded expectations in preseason will get into some games. Currently, there are not four left wingers that would totally keep Bratt from getting some minutes. If Bratt does well on Monday and makes it to Wednesday’s game in DC, then why not? Give him some games because he has deserved it. I think we will see Bratt on October 7 and for a couple more games after that. Then he’ll be sent to London where he will hopefully be a standout player on a strong Knights squad. And I am fine with all of that potentially happening.
That is my take on the situation and my answer to the question posed in the headline. Now it is your turn. Do you think Bratt should start with the Devils before going back to London? If so, how many games do you think he’ll play with New Jersey? If not, why not? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Bratt in the comments. Thank you for reading.