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Jesper Bratt Should Be a Pillar of the Rebuild

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Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald has called Hughes and Hischier the “pillars” of the rebuild. Interim Head Coach Alain Nasreddine has healthy-scratched Jesper Bratt. Why do they think so little of the latter, and is it warranted?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Tom Fitzgerald has been pretty open about what his vision for the team is, and he’s made his mark. He made some big early splashes in trading Andy Greene (link), Blake Coleman (link), followed by deadline deals for Simmonds (link), Vatanen (link), and Domingue (link). In making these franchise-altering moves, Fitz has begun to make a case($) for retaining the GM job heading into next season. To that end, Fitz’s philosophy on the rebuild has been pretty fully transparent with regards to how the team is to be constructed. He’s called Hughes and Hischier pillars, intimated that Blackwood is in that group as well, and I think this segment of his interview with Pierre LeBrun($) is particularly interesting.

You know Pierre, this may look like we’re selling and selling and selling, and the plan is to burn this thing down. We’re not. My plan is to be a competitive team next year. We have pieces. Jack Hughes is going to get bigger and stronger as we saw in Nico. And Nico is going to continue to get better. We feel we have a couple of pieces, whether it’s Jesper Boqvist coming up and filling spots in the top six, he’s getting comfortable in North America right now, he’s playing well in the American League. We’ve got MacKenzie Blackwood.

In that quote, he mentions Nico, Jack, and Mac — and even give Boqvist(?) get a shoutout — but conspicuously leaves out a winger who is the same age as Nico and leads all Devils in 5v5 scoring rate over the last two seasons. In fact, while the interim GM was busy praising an AHLer as a potential top-6 NHL forward, the interim coach was benching the aforementioned highly-productive NHLer. I’m speaking, of course, about Jesper Bratt.

I gained a bit of a rep as a Hynes-apologist for articles like this and this, as well as this farewell. In fact, I once even tried to explain the logic behind his benching of Bratt — however, I stopped well short of agreeing with it. In fact, this was ultimately one of the inexcusable decisions that forced me to change my tune and support Hynes’s dismissal. And what has happened since his firing has done nothing but reinforce the depiction of the repeated decisions to benc him as inexcusable. For instance, one of the things I critiqued about Bratt’s game in the article linked above was his defensive impact which, at the time, seemed to be a negative (as it had been most of his career). But, recently, he’s drastically improved his defensive game to the degree that he’s got a legitimate claim to being better than Nico in that respect. Although, there’s an argument to be made Nico had a roll in Jesper’s improvement as well. But, regression-based metrics like Hockeyviz’s threat % and Evolving-Hockey’s RAPMs should account for linemates, and they still make Jesper seem pretty good defensively this season.

This is how you read these charts. On the right: adjusting for linemates, opponents, and coaching; Jesper Bratt should cause a decrease in goals against by a factor of 9% (assuming league-average shooting). On the right, Jesper Bratt’s impact on expected goals against is about 1.7 standard deviations better than average (~95th percentile) when adjusting for linemates, opposition, score, venue, strength, zone, and rest. That’s a substantially beneficial player to have on the ice from a defensive perspective.

And there’s another component of his game that is really good as well — shooting. According to MoneyPuck, Bratt is has the highest shooting talent on the team currently, and 14th in the NHL among forwards with 500+ minutes (with some pretty impressive neighbors). On the Evolving-Hockey xGAR sub-models which breakdown value by component of the game, his shooting is also best on the team — nearly twice as efficient as the #2 Devil (Palmieri) — and 19th in the NHL.

I’ve written in the past about how Palmieri’s game — a strong defensive sniping winger — has made him a consistent and hyper-efficient top line winger for us. It looks like we have the makings of another player of that mold developing in the 21-year-old Bratt. In fact, to some degree, it appears he’s already arrived. I understand looking at just this partial-season may be misleading, so let’s view his GAR production going back to the beginning of last year — about 1500 minutes of ice time.

via Evolving Hockey

This GAR rate breakdown depicts Bratt as the 3rd most efficient Devil in that span. He’s also the most efficient this season and 27th most efficient forward in the whole league in even-strength offense, once again, holding some eye-popping company.

These results seem to point fairly convincingly towards including Bratt as an important piece of the rebuild. Those of you who follow me on twitter seem to agree. From my perspective, the management over this season, both fired and not, have displayed wildly inconsistent approaches on accountability and respect for the players. There are plenty of veterans whose play are more “inconsistent” than Bratt (Simmonds comes to mind) and some of them aren’t even that veteran (Miles Wood comes to mind) and they’ve been able to largely avoid being benched. Similarly, we have seen inconsistency, and drastically less production, out of rookies like Jack Hughes, and he’s been given an unequivocal vote of confidence, arguably without having the production to have earned it.

I’m open to the argument that sitting guys like Bratt, Gusev, Severson, and Butcher have contributed positively to their development. But, an effective coach should be able to incentivize that growth without hurting the team by sitting its most talented players. How much better does Bratt have to be than Hughes to be too “talented” to sit? How much more “consistent” does Bratt need to be than Wood to absolve himself of reprimand? And how bright does his future need to look for him to be considered a “pillar” of the rebuild? I’d argue we’re already there, and it’s time the staff recognize it as well.

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What do you guys think? Is Jesper Bratt a pillar? How good has he been for us this season? Do you think his defense has improved? Does it make sense how efficient his shot is? How would you like to see him deployed this season and next? Answer these and any other question in which you’re interested in the comments below, and, as always, thanks for reading!