Relatively frequently in hockey and across most professional sports, there are disconnects between supporters of a team and the coaches and staff on the value of one player or another. Sometimes, even if perceptions between fans and an organization don’t line up, you can at least understand the reasons that might be the case. Other times, though, the reasons for the undervaluation of a player are difficult to discern. The eye test and the numbers will both back up an increased role for a player, but they still seem to be deployed in a way that does not reflect their abilities. In that vein, a bizarrely persistent theme that now stretches across multiple years and coaching staffs is the underappreciation of Jesper Bratt.
Bratt, a sixth round pick in 2016, was a surprise breakout in the 2017-18 season just one season after he was drafted. Now in his fourth season in the NHL, he has steadily improved as a player since that rookie season, to the point that just about any metric you can pick out for him shows him as a top-six or even top-line performer. Going even further than that, the numbers suggest that Bratt is arguably an elite 5v5 player. Bratt was the 162nd player selected in the 2016 draft, but is 12th in games played, 8th in points, and 7th in goals among his 2016 peers. Despite his continued improvement and status as arguably the most effective 5v5 forward currently on this roster, the minutes he is provided are still middling and, at times, even head-scratchingly limited.
By the numbers, few Devils can stack up to Bratt in on-ice impacts right now. In terms of generating on-ice expected goals and suppressing on-ice expected goals against, Bratt likely has the best impacts on the entire roster, per HockeyViz’s model. Similarly, Bratt has excellent RAPM impacts across the board from Evolving Hockey’s model and leads the entire team in their goals above replacement metric. Even looking at the more basic on-ice measures at Natural Stat Trick, Bratt leads the team in percentage of 5v5 attempts, shots on goal, and high-danger changes when he is on the ice. Play is always moving forward for the Devils when Bratt is out there but his minutes don’t really outpace the rest of the roster at 5v5 and they are middling (6th among regulars) in all situations.
Part of this has to do with Lindy Ruff’s adherence to rolling all of his lines largely evenly this season (11 of the 14 forwards with 5+ GP have played between 10:27 and 12:27 5v5 minutes per game). Jack Hughes (and to a lesser extent, Kyle Palmieri) is really the only forward to break out of that pack in terms of minutes. It’s understandable that Jack Hughes is getting a lot of minutes with the type of dynamic force that he is, but my argument here is that Ruff should be giving Bratt the same treatment, especially if he is only going to get a handful of special teams minutes on any given night. When Bratt and Hughes are on the ice together in particular, the Devils are a menace to opposing teams, putting up around 60% of the attempts, shots, and expected goals, plus 75% of the goals thus far.
As I said above, it’s also not just the numbers. If you watch Jesper Bratt on a nightly basis, you know that he thinks the game at a very high level and that he is a player constantly finding seams and weak points in opposing defenses. He is a gifted puck carrier and, despite being cold this season, is a player with a very good shot. The Devils are a team that has done a solid job driving play this season, but they are a bit lacking when it comes to gifted playmakers and finishers. Bratt has been much more the former than the latter this season, but he has shown to this point in his career that he is very much capable of both. I don’t know whether it’s his size or perhaps the stubborn lingering perception that comes with being a late-round draft selection, but he rarely gets the props that he probably deserves, particularly from the organization itself (see: his minutes, his contract, etc.).
If you don’t want to take my word for it or the numbers’ word for it, maybe take it from a neutral observer and someone who might watch as much hockey as nearly anyone on the planet. Corey Sznajder has been tracking microstats like zone entries, zone exits, and other shot creation metrics for years now, manually recording the numbers from watching film of NHL games and compiling them. Here is what he has to say about Jesper Bratt:
Based on what Sznajder has tracked, Jesper Bratt has barely any peers across the entire league when it comes to entering the zone with control and creating scoring chances from those entries. This isn’t an enormous sample being dealt with here, but it’s just another data point in favor of maximizing the minutes for Bratt. Even if the coaches for whatever reason don’t want to give him PP1 or PK minutes on special teams, that’s all the more reason for him to be playing 14+ minutes a night at even strength.
So here’s my plea to Lindy Ruff and the Devils: play Jesper Bratt like the first-line talent he almost certainly is at this point. Even when he is producing, he does not get the minutes he warrants as a player. Looking at his current six-game point streak, Bratt has fewer than 15 minutes in four of those six games and fewer than 14 in three of them. In the month of March as a whole, he has played fewer than 14 minutes in 9 of 14 games. Last night, he was tenth among Devils forwards in 5v5 ice time, playing just 9:42 at evens. This is all mind-bending to me. He should be getting closer to 20 minutes a night than 14 and he’s rarely even clearing the bar on the latter. I have liked a number of the things that Lindy Ruff has done with this team at even-strength, but his deployment of Jesper Bratt is confounding. He is one of your best players: use him as such.