One of the suprise stories in a Devils season with many has been the instant success of their 2016 6th round pick, Jesper Bratt. Bratt was a generally well-liked pick at the time — a speedy winger with some good upside — but like most late-round picks, was figured to be a project and a player that might not show up in New Jersey for at least several years. This fall, Bratt burst onto the scene in New Jersey in training camp and then didn’t look back once the regular season got going. Bratt made his way onto the top line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier and produced in a big way, so he stayed there.
The young winger, still just 19 years old and the third-youngest player in the entire league, has been crucial to the Devils’ success this season. He sits third on the Devils in points this season and has shown high levels of vision and playmaking ability. Particularly given the injuries to key forwards the Devils have endured for much of this year, it’s hard to see the team getting to where they are without Bratt’s contributions. Hischier was a rookie largely expected to have an impact for this Devils team, but Bratt was essentially found money, and it has helped the Devils be the competitive and at-times dynamic team they’ve been.
The past month, though, things have sort of ground to a halt for young Jesper. Where he was once consistently finding the scoresheet, he has now gone mostly silent for the past month. Prior to January 30th, Bratt had just one stretch of more than three games without a point on the season, and that was in mid-October. He had been a consistent presence in the box score for pretty much the entire year through January, with his month by month output being 10, 5, 9, and 7 points for October, November, December, and January, respectively. Now in February, Bratt has points in just one out of 12 games with a total of two for the month. Stretching back to January 20th he has just three points in his last 16 games and zero goals over that stretch.
Through this slump, Bratt has seen his time on ice drop fairly significantly, from a high of near 17 minutes in December down to around 15 minutes for February. In three of his last five games, Bratt has seen less than 13 total minutes of ice time, something that had only happened three times in his first 55, so the coaches are clearly a bit concerned about his play, too. Now getting roughly third-line minutes, John Hynes and his staff seem to be signaling that they need Jesper to get right before he’s featured prominently again.
Bratt’s shot rates haven’t necessarily been prolific over the course of the season, but in January, despite a solid month points-wise, one can look at his shot totals and see a player who needs to be more involved in the offense. Bratt had just 10 shots in 11 games in January and didn’t manage a multi-shot night once from December 30th to February 11th. A lot of Bratt’s value has been in his playmaking and his ability to see plays develop and distribute the puck, but he has a decent shot and a forward getting top-six minutes needs to be able to take get pucks to the net on his own sometimes.
Bratt’s per-game shot rate for the season has dipped to 1.43 at this point — roughly identical to Travis Zajac — which, for a more offensive-minded player, isn’t great. If you’re looking for a little encouragement, though, Bratt has put up four multi-shot games in his last six for a total of 12. I think what you have to hope is that he’s just starting to counter-adjust to whatever adjustments the league has made for him.
Another cause for concern is the question of whether Bratt can be effective while playing away from Taylor Hall and/or Nico Hischier. The picture painted by the underlying numbers... isn’t particularly rosy. Via Natural Stat Trick, Bratt’s with-or-without-you numbers aren’t so pretty right now. With Hall and/or Hischier, Bratt’s on-ice numbers are somewhere between good and great. The three together get over 50% of shot attempts (CF%) and over 58% of the high-danger chances (HDCF%). Even with just one of the two, Bratt has a solid CF% and HDCF% around 50% or higher.
In his minutes away from both, however, the bottom falls out. Bratt’s CF% with neither Hischier or Hall is a very unfortunate 39.52% and his HDCF% without them is a somehow even more unfortunate 30%. This isn’t an insignificant number of minutes either, Bratt has over 250 5v5 minutes away from the Devils’ top two forwards. For whatever reason (aside from the obvious), Bratt has been unable to click with other linemates at all thus far. One would expect anyone’s numbers to suffer a bit away from top players like Hall and Hischier, but the drop-off is very extreme here.
It’s not like Hall and Hischier have performed substantially better with a different winger (51.11 CF% an 50.78 HDCF% together without Bratt), Bratt just has found no chemistry with other linemates. His time with the three most common other centers, Zajac, Pavel Zacha, and Adam Henrique, has been similarly woeful with each sporting a 43% CF or worse together with Bratt having no more than one 5v5 point with any of them. It’s understandable that a player will play better with Hall and/or Hischier but the precipitous dropoff away from them is curious and certainly a bit of a red flag. It’s possible that playing styles just aren’t meshing, but Bratt seems to see the ice very well so it is at least a bit strange that it’s been so rough. If Bratt wants to be a long-term contributor rather than a flash in the pan, he will need to get things sorted out with players not named Hischier and Hall.
An instant analysis of last night’s trade for Michael Grabner might not have considered Bratt’s struggles for why the team went ahead and pulled the trigger, but it does make some sense upon review. Grabner is obviously a completely different player from Bratt, but the fact that Bratt has struggled through a crucial stretch of the season perhaps made Ray Shero feel that the team needed additional help on the right wing (even moreso than they already did). If the Devils can figure out a combo of Bratt, Grabner, and Kyle Palmieri that works down the right side of the top-nine, that position starts to look fairly solidified, with Stefan Noesen also there as a depth option.
Bratt, being a rookie and especially the third-youngest rookie in the league, should probably be expected to have some growing pains, and perhaps that’s just what we’re seeing. The Devils do probably need him to find his way back to being a factor, though, as things really do not let up between here and the end of the season. The most concerning part of this look at Bratt’s play is definitely the issues he is having away from Hischier and Hall, but many of the players in that bottom-nine group have similarly struggled in different stretches and eventually found their footing. Bratt needs to prove that he’s more than just a passenger but maybe it’s just a matter of Hynes finding the right combo. Given how well Bratt has contributed on the top line and some other factors like his positive all-three zones stats, I don’t think he is purely a product of the Devils’ big two, but he will have to up his play away from them to start to prove otherwise or even to play his way back onto that line.