Yesterday evening, the New Jersey Devils Twitter account published news that fans were anxious to hear: Jesper Bratt is rejoining the team this morning and will be available for the morning skate. Now maybe this isn’t exactly the news many were waiting for, as it says nothing about him coming into the lineup for tonight’s game. This is, however, an important step in getting Bratt acclimated to the team’s new system and ready for games.
Bratt’s Importance to the Devils
Outside of MacKenzie Blackwood, Bratt was the player that most fans were concerned about getting under contract this past offseason, and for good reason. In his first three seasons (185 games played), Bratt has already hit the 100 point mark for his career, with 72 of those coming at even strength. While 2018-19 was his most productive season so far in terms of points per games played (0.65), his P/GP last season (0.53) wasn’t far off from his career average (0.541) despite the Devils in general being a train wreck last season.
Bratt also hit a career high in goals last season (16) in 14 fewer games than his previous career high of 13 in 74 games from his rookie season. He was playing arguably the best hockey of his young career so far when the 2019-20 NHL season went into its hiatus, with 5 goals and 8 points in what wound up being his final 10 games of 2019-20.
While left wing isn’t as weak of a position as it was last year thanks to the addition of Andreas Johnsson and the early emergence of Yegor Sharangovich, it doesn’t make Bratt unimportant. He’s still arguably the team’s most talented LW, and should find himself among the Top 6 forwards. Is that the best place for him right away? Not exactly, but let’s look at why that is.
When and Where Should He Play
Jesper joins a Devils team that has so far this season found some early success while also presenting a fun to watch on-ice product. While I can understand many who want him back in the lineup right away, we shouldn’t forget that Bratt has not played a game of hockey in the last roughly 11 months. It will more than likely take some time for him to find his legs, and his game, so I don’t think he should be rushed into the lineup, unless by some miracle during practice, he looks as though he hasn’t missed a beat.
The Devils currently have a stretch of six games over the next 10 days, with tonight’s home contest against the Second Rate Rivals and February 5th’s afternoon contest against Our Hated Rivals bookending a four game road trip. Barring any teammates getting injured or placed into Covid protocol, I think the earliest we see Bratt is next Saturday’s home game. This will enable him to have a week of practice, while also letting Coach Lindy Ruff figure out where he should insert Bratt in the lineup.
Speaking of the lineup, where Jesper should play got a bit more muddled thanks to some line juggling last game. If we go off of the lines the Devils ended the game with, the forward combinations looked like this:
Gusev - Hughes - Palmieri
Johnsson - Zajac - Kuokkanen
Sharangovich - Zacha - Merkley
Wood - McLeod - Bastian
If we assume the team will continue with these lines, where to put Bratt becomes a tricky question, as he looked best last season when paired with Nikita Gusev and to a lesser extent, Pavel Zacha. Reuniting that trio would disrupt at least two lines, however it could be a way to get Gusev going, and to keep Zacha contributing offensively. I say let’s put them back together and run with this to start:
Sharangovich - Hughes - Palmieri
Johnsson - Zajac - Kuokkanen
Bratt - Zacha - Gusev
Wood - McLeod - Bastian
I was going to scratch Johnsson from my lineup due to his struggles so far. As I was writing this article though, the Devils announced that they have assigned Nick Merkley to the taxi squad, so they took having to make the decision of who sits out of my hands!
Why make all of these changes? Why put him on what is listed here as the third line? Well...
Utilizing Him to His Fullest
We have to keep in mind the fact from earlier that it has been a while since Bratt has played professional hockey. Add that to the fact that Gusev has been ice cold to start the season and you get a recipe for what should currently be a third line. The hope here is that putting these guys back with each other gets them all going, to the point where they amount of playing time they receive essentially flip-flops them with Travis Zajac’s line.
Now this isn’t to say that Bratt is only going to see even strength time; I do think he should be immediately added to the second power play unit as well. The first unit headed up y Ty Smith and Jack Hughes has looked pretty dangerous, but the second unit is in need of a facelift. Putting Bratt into this group could benefit both him and the Devils’ power play as a whole; if gives him an opportunity to find success with the man advantage and if he does, it gives the Devils two power play groups that opponents have to look out for.
I keep Bratt away from the penalty kill though; we don’t need to be putting him in all situations right away, plus, there’s another forward who should hopefully be back soon that I think would have a greater impact on that group. The goal for Jesper is to get him slowly acclimated; not pushing Top 6 minutes and first power play duty on him off the bat should help to get him (hopefully quickly) to a place where he is comfortable and contributing.
How do you feel about Jesper Bratt’s imminent return to the lineup? When exactly do you think he returns? Who does he slot in to play with? What do you think are realistic expectations of his production this season? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!
This is John. Normally, I don’t include a postscript within the post itself, but it is significant to the subject of this post. Shortly after this post went up, head coach Lindy Ruff announced that Jesper Bratt would be playing tonight against Philadelphia. No delay. No waiting until a practice; which may not be for some time as the Devils will head into Buffalo after this game and then Pittsburgh next week before returning home the following Saturday for an afternoon game. Tonight. We shall see whether his usage is limited since he is going to rather be rusty on the ice in addition to playing under a new system where more is asked of wingers like Bratt. Bratt may have had it explained to him and he may understand the explanation, but performing it is an entirely different task than hearing and seeing it. At least at home, Ruff can be in more control of his utilization. Let’s hope for the best all the same.