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Jesper Bratt Took a Leap Forward in 2018-19. Can He Take Another This Season?

After a rough finish to his rookie season in 2017-18, it was fair to question if Jesper Bratt was a flash in the pan. After a strong sophomore season, some of those doubts have been significantly diminished. Can he cement his status as part of the core of this team in 2019-20?

New Jersey Devils v Minnesota Wild

Jesper Bratt is a bit of a polarizing Devil. Pretty much everyone agrees that he was a steal where he was taken in the 6th round of the 2016 draft. The widespread agreement on Bratt seems to end there, though. While he has put up strong production for a player his age, there are some holes in his game and he had a very rough second half of his rookie season in 2017-18. In 2018-19, he came back stronger and more productive in an injury-truncated 51-game campaign, yet he still has his skeptics. Today we will dig into the performance of the young Swede and try to figure out what to expect from him this season.

Making the Eye Test Fun

Your mileage may vary on Jesper Bratt, but its hard to deny that he is a player with some major skill on the puck. He can see lanes and sense scoring opportunities at a high level and his stickwork and passing allow him to beat defenses in situations where others may not even see an opportunity. He's the type of player who has both the vision and the willingness to make plays that few others can. He has a pretty good shot in his own right but the real top-notch memorable plays from Bratt are the ones where he is setting up a teammate. Embedded below are a sampling of great setups from Bratt this season. A notable part of each of these setups from him is that despite a tight window in each situation, his teammate is able to basically just slam it home on the receiving end.

These plays aren't everything and Bratt's play away from the puck is still a work in progress to some extent, but he has become a consistent threat on the puck and a guy who doesn’t need an obvious window to make something happen. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that he is one of the best — if not the best — passers on the Devils roster. Particularly when he’s on his game, he’s among the most fun players to watch in New Jersey.

Producing on His Own

In 2017-18, Jesper Bratt was a surprise breakout sensation in the first half of the season. The 2016 sixth-round pick was a generally well-liked pick in the spot he was taken, but he was still a sixth-rounder, and the expectation was that if he did make an impact, it would likely be further down the road. He forced his way onto the roster way ahead of expectations in the 2017 preseason and subsequently roared out of the gate to start his rookie season. Bratt put up six points in his first three regular season games as a Devil and carried that momentum through much of the opening half of the 2017-18 season. Over his first 44 games, Bratt put up 30 points, an extraordinary pace for a 19-year-old drafted 162nd overall just a year prior.

As we know, things tapered off (putting it generously) for Jesper Bratt from there. Over his final 30 games, he would chip in just five points and see his minutes cut until eventually he was a semi-regular scratch by the end of the season. He would appear in just one playoff game in the Devils’ five-game loss to the Lightning. So the question was: who was the real Jesper Bratt? He hit the rookie wall badly, and it was fair to wonder if he was largely a product of playing on a line with the eventual league MVP and the first overall pick. A vast majority of his even strength production came on a line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier and his numbers cratered pretty much across the board away from them. The most 5v5 points he had with any non-Hall-or-Hischier teammate was two (2). His possession numbers largely tanked on any other line as well. There were a lot of fair questions regarding whether he was a flash in the pan heading into the 2018 offseason.

So Bratt entered 2018-19 with something to prove, despite being one of the surprises of the previous season. The verdict? Bratt was a much better player in 2018-19 and proved that he was capable of producing without all-world linemates.

It has gone a bit under the radar for whatever reason, but in terms of per-60 point production, Bratt was far and away the most prolific 5v5 non-Taylor-Hall scorer on the Devils last season. His scoring rate (via Natural Stat Trick) was 25% higher than third-highest 5v5 producer, Nico Hischier (2.23 pts/60 vs. 1.79). Bratt was also comforably in second in primary assists and primary points per 60.

A skeptic might point out that Bratt tailed off sharply after game 45 last season and only played 51 this season, leaving lingering doubts about his ability to contribute over a full campaign. There are two notable things about this season that undercut that skepticism, though.

First, Bratt produced this season like he did in the front half of 2018-19 without the aid of being on a line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier all the time. With injuries and the way the lineup was deployed in 2018-19, Bratt actually only played 30 5v5 minutes with Taylor Hall in his sophomore campaign. And while Bratt played pretty big minutes with Nico Hischier and was fairly productive in them, he was actually most productive with two different forwards this year, Marcus Johansson and Pavel Zacha (who themselves were 10th and 12th in 5v5 point production on the team, respectively).

Second, while Bratt’s season was cut short, he was far from a player who looked ready to go in the tank down the stretch. In his final 13 games prior to the game vs Columbus where he’d end up picking up a lower-body injury that would result in him being shut down for the season, Bratt had 13 points and 30 shots. In an often injury-depleted lineup, Bratt was looking like a bona fide top-line talent before his season was brought to an early conclusion.

Underlying Improvement

While Bratt’s production falling off at the end of 2017-18 was an issue, perhaps even more concerning were his underlying numbers, which painted a pretty unkind picture of the young winger. I mentioned above that his on-ice stats suffered away from Hall and Hischier for the most part. This indicated some issues with Bratt’s play away from the puck and his ability to drive play in general. Digging a bit deeper, his impacts in 2017-18 — measured by Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), a regression-based measure of a player’s impacts, controlling for teammates, competition, deployment, and other factors — bear that out.

Jesper Bratt 2017-18 RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

The 2017-18 RAPM metrics aren’t pretty for Bratt. They are likely hindered by the awful finish to the season he had, but the impacts are negative across the board. In his rookie season, you could definitely point to things Bratt was doing well, particularly in the first half, but those moments were somewhat isolated and, generally, the team saw negative effects on their goal and shot differentials with him on the ice.

Fast forward to 2018-19 and the RAPM numbers paint a bit of a different picture. Bratt comes across as much more of a breakeven player in terms of on-ice impacts. And while his defense could still use some work, his offensive impacts at even-strength took a huge leap forward. His power play metrics also saw an uptick to go along with the even strength impacts.

Jesper Bratt 2018-19 RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

Given that Bratt is still a young player, as he just turned 21 in the past couple weeks, this upward trend in on-ice impacts to go along with really strong production paint the picture of a player with an opportunity to be a significant part of a strong Devils team going forward.

2019-20 Outlook

So what can we expect from Jesper Bratt in 2019-20? If he can build on his 2018-19 season, he seems poised for a potential breakout year. The Devils are a deeper team now and Bratt showed an ability to perform without riding shotgun on the Hall-Hischier buzzsaw last season. I think that gives the team options, though it may make the most sense to put Bratt on the top line, regardless. Assuming they keep him turned around on the right wing, it seems likely that Bratt will figure into the top-six, and if he plays significant minutes, a season with 50+ points and solid on-ice impacts seems well within reach. If he continues his development trajectory, Bratt could be a key playmaker on some good Devils squads for years to come. Of course nothing is a guarantee on that front, but given the improvement shown last season, he seems well on his way.