I know, I know. Just last week I said I was going to wait until the offseason to do this. I changed my mind. Today, it’s time to once again appreciate the greatness of Jesper Bratt.
All the way back in October, I wrote about what contracts I would give Hughes, Bratt, and Zacha on their next deals. For Hughes, I predicted an 8 year deal with an AAV of 9.8 million. This ended up being an overestimate. It probably didn’t hurt Fitzgerald’s bargaining position that Hughes was out with a dislocated shoulder when he signed the contract given he’d only played 2 games this season to that point. For Bratt, I recommended a 6 year, $6.2 million AAV. I thought it was a reasonable figure given I was projecting a breakout year for the young Swedish winger. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 points. It’s not like projecting Bratt to have a breakout year was some bold statement. His underlying numbers have been great for years, as you can see in the chart below, but the points just hadn’t yet followed. Partially this was due to some bad shooting luck and I would argue poor usage (underutilization). That’s often a sign of good things to come in a player his age. Yet still, I took some criticism for pointing out the fact that Bratt was objectively a better overall hockey player than Pavel Zacha and that this would continue to be the case moving forward.
While Bratt being a more useful hockey player than Zacha is just par for the course, even Bratt’s biggest supporters (myself among them) wouldn’t claim that they predicted anything like what he has done this year. Nineteen goals and 54 points in 52 games for a 1.04 p/gp average. He leads the team in shot-share and expected goals, with a CF% of 55.76% and xGF% of 59.30% (min 50 minutes), respectively. Evolving hockey has him as the 14th most valuable skater in the league with a xGAR of 17.4 as of this morning. For context, that puts him just ahead of Elias Lindholm, Patrice Bergeron, and Matthew Tkachuk, and right behind Dylan Larkin and Leon Draisaitl. Patrick Bacon’s WAR and player data puts Bratt in the 94th percentile among NHL forwards (see chart above). Bratt has been outstanding this season, to the point where I think he has a very strong case for the team’s MVP.
Bratt’s skating, elusiveness, and puck-carrying ability allows him to transition the puck effectively and his intelligence, puck skills, and play-making ability allows him to create odd-man rushes and high-danger opportunities inside the offensive zone. No one on the team creates scoring chances or high danger shot attempts at a higher rate than Bratt does. Bratt isn’t just leading the team in a bunch of statistical categories though, he legitimately makes everyone around him better. We’ve seen Johnsson and Mercer have incredible stretches of games while Bratt was tied to their line, we’ve seen Hughes and Bratt click and dominate stretches of games, and we’ve seen Hischier start to find his offensive rhythm again since 63 has been moved back to his wing. And Bratt isn’t relying on anyone else to have the impacts he has had this year, as is clearly visible in the graph below.
The question now becomes, what to do with the pending RFA? Well, as I have harped on several times since joining All About the Jersey, Bratt should be considered a core member of this team. He is just as important as Hughes and Hischier to the future of this team and if Fitzgerald doesn’t now recognize the obvious, I would be skeptical of his ability to build a successful hockey team moving forward. Thus, signing Bratt to a long-term contract should currently be the team’s number one priority. Preferably sooner than later in order to avoid another hold-out like happened last time he needed a new deal. Last summer would’ve been a good time to do it, but then again, Bratt and his camp probably weren’t on board with that idea. As for the dollar amount, it’s not going to be cheap. The $6.2 million AAV I speculated back in October is probably on the low side of what Bratt is looking at now. I doubt he gets Jack Hughes money, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he comes in around what Hischier is making ($7.25) given his counting stats this season. In my mind he’d be worth every penny.
Critics will note that Bratt’s breakout year just happens to be in a contract year, and while I won’t disagree that financial incentives are a powerful motivator, I would be skeptical of anyone who argued that was the sole reason for Bratt’s breakout given his history of having positive underlying numbers. More likely, at age 23, we are seeing his peak offensive production as he enters his prime years, and his desire for a lucrative new contract only enhanced what would have been a breakout year for him regardless.
Whether or not you agree with my assessment of Bratt as a core piece of the team, I would encourage you to enjoy what we are seeing from him this season. Despite the struggles the Devils have had this year, there have been a few great individual performances that have made this team bearable to watch, and Bratt is at the top of the list in this category.
Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading.