When Tom Fitzgerald references the core group of young players that will make of the key pieces of a future Stanley Cup contending team, you will hear him list four names: Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and MacKenzie Blackwood (NHL.com, Pucks and pitchforks). This is consistent with the group that Corey Masisak often references in his work at The Athletic ($), such as Here, and here. That second link raises the specific point I want to talk about today. Masisak asks us to imagine what the core of the next Devils team capable of winning the Stanley Cup will look like. He then goes on to suggest that the list includes the four names listed above (plus Hamilton). Each one of those players is an incredible talent and all of them have shown flashes of brilliance at one point or another. I expect at least one of them to be a superstar in the NHL and hopefully more than one of them will reach that level. But there is one name that consistently gets left out of these discussions. The fifth name that should immediately come to mind when thinking of the Devils young core (emphasis to show I’m not forgetting Hamilton). That name is Jesper Bratt.
I want to say that there is no good reason for his omission, or that there are just dumb reasons for it anyway. Maybe it’s a European bias or a lack of critical thinking leading the ‘hockey-men’ to undervalue the skillset of Bratt compared to someone who is ‘harder to play against’. I am not dismissing the latter idea since the NHL seems to have taken the wrong lessons from Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Cups; I do hope we are beyond the former idea by now though. As much as I would like to dismiss the arguments of all who doubt Bratt’s greatness, there are some understandable reasons he gets overlooked.
Bratt first broke into the NHL after a dominant training camp in the 2017-18 season, and followed it up by a strong first half of the season (by the counting stats and eye test anyway) highlighted by 6 points in his first 3 games, and doing so as a 19-year-old rookie. He then spent the next season and a half being the model of inconsistency. He got off to a rough start when he fractured his jaw prior to the start of the 2018-19 season and missed a good chunk of time. While he managed to improve his scoring rate by a good bit, almost matching his point total from his rookie season in 23 less games, he still was not driving play. In addition, most of his defensive metrics were bottom 5 on the roster. At this point, it was fair to wonder how good of a player Bratt would ever become. I certainly had my doubts at this point. And this leads me to the main reason I think Bratt does not get the recognition he deserves, expectations.
Often, a fanbase will base their opinion of a player based on their prior expectations of what they imagine said player is supposed to be, instead of what that player actually is. Unfortunately, the player usually takes the brunt of the criticism when things don’t work out that way, rather than management. If a player comes out of nowhere to become an ok, bottom 6 forward he is a huge success, but when a more highly touted player does less than expected (even if those expectations were unrealistic) he’s awful and the team should trade him for peanuts to get him off of the roster. Even when player B is still significantly better than player A. I believe a similar psychology has gone on in Bratt’s case. Now, no one is calling for Bratt to be booted off of the team, but I do feel that the Devils front office, media, and some fans are undervaluing Jesper Bratt to a significant degree. And it’s partially because expectations for the Swedish winger have been so volatile during his career that he has been pegged as this inconsistent middle-6 forward who still needs to put everything together. This is, unsurprisingly, a league-wide thing. A fan poll of who should make the Swedish Men’s Olympic roster had Bratt left off the team by a good margin with only 19% of participants voting him as one of the 14 forwards to make the team.
Here's the 2022 Swedish Men's Olympic roster as voted by you!— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) September 3, 2021
Bratt has always had the tools to be a key contributor, with excellent hands and passing ability, an under-rated shot, great elusiveness and change of direction ability, and a low center of gravity that allows him to possess the puck against bigger players in the offensive zone. But for his first few years in the league, it was a question whether or not he would put everything together enough to be a key piece for this team going forward. His modest point totals (he has yet to hit 40 points) haven’t helped matters and I’ve seen him called soft by some fans. But points aren’t everything, and I am here to tell you that Bratt has already arrived.
Objectively, Bratt has improved every season he has been in the league. He has not yet had a ‘breakout’ year (points-wise), but rather his progress has been linear. He has gone from being a drag on the run of play to driving play. This past season, he was third on the team in xGF% among skaters to play at least 200 minutes and led the team in GAR/60. His overall WAR percentage is dragged down by his poor finishing last season, which will likely regress. And, as Todd Cordell noted at Infernal Access:
nobody did a better job of positively impacting things on the scoreboard. Bratt led Devils forwards with a GF share nearly 10% higher than the team’s without him on the ice.
His defense, an area where he struggled mightily in his first few seasons, has also improved significantly. In the chart above from JFresh Hockey you can see his even strength defense is in the 85th percentile over the last three seasons. Last season, Evolving-Hockey has him ranked in the 94th percentile in even strength defense last season after ranking in the 14th percentile 2 seasons ago. A player card from Andy and Rono, which you will see pictured below, also ranks Bratt’s defense highly, putting him in the 84th percentile. There does seem to be some disagreement in this category however, as Architecte Hockey ranks his defense in the 35th percentile. Although there are certainly deficiencies in his defensive game, mainly puck retrievals and zone entry defense, I do think most would agree he has made good strides in this area of his game and I am comfortable calling him a strong two-way forward.
Jesper Bratt didn't score much but he had very good season, driving play at the top level along with his transition skills. pic.twitter.com/nGhgFJrB3H— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) July 19, 2021
Unsurprisingly given his skillset, he also excels in transition. As you can see in the visualizations above and below he is ranked in the 92nd percentile in this category. He has shown the ability to create controlled zone entries and exits throughout his career and is excellent at creating offense off of the rush.
Jesper Bratt has loads of skill in the passing and transitional departement.— Bryce Chevallier (@FauxCentre) August 3, 2021
If he can mature and get to the better shooting areas and solidify his defence, he's definitely got upside https://t.co/bGMs9bhafX pic.twitter.com/JGRiFAHHed
So why does he not get the love he deserves? Shouldn’t he be considered a part of the core by management and fans? Especially when players with much less of a track record (Ty Smith), and who have been just as inconsistent or moreso (Blackwood) seem to have earned those spots. Hischier and Hughes have 1st overall pedigree, and even if Fitzgerald wasn’t the GM at the time, he was a key member of the organization and likely had a say in those picks so it’s understandable they are almost default, part of the core. But as I alluded to before, Bratt was wildly inconsistent to start his career and has yet to produce at a level equivalent with his current level of performance. I think this has led to him being pegged as a decent top-6 forward who can’t be relied upon in tough minutes. But as I have shown above, this is far from the truth.
Maybe it seems pedantic to argue about whether Bratt is part of ‘the core’, or just an important secondary contributor, but I believe this is an important distinction. You don’t trade core players away without receiving back significant value in return. On the other hand, you may be ok dealing away someone you see as ‘just a top-6 winger’ if you feel you need to be ‘tougher to play against’. So I will staunchly argue that Bratt isn’t in the next tier of players. In fact, given the data we have available, I think he has a good argument to be in the conversation for best Devils player from the 2021 season, and loses out only to Jack Hughes in my mind. And I’ll take it a step further and predict that even with a healthy Hischier and Tatar, Bratt will be the second best forward on the Devils this coming season, and will finally see the points begin to flow. While he hasn’t yet had this huge breakout season, his improvement over the last two years with has made him one of the team’s best forwards and a core member of this team.
Now you’ve heard the argument for Bratt being a core player for the Devils going forward, what are your thoughts? Do you think Bratt is a core member of the Devils? Or is he more of a secondary player? Is this distinction important to you? Will Bratt have a breakout season? Please leave your thoughts below, and thank you for reading.