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New Jersey Devils RFA Profile: Jesper Bratt

Jesper Bratt established himself as a core piece for the Devils in 2022-23 and will now have the opportunity to cash in as a RFA with arbitration rights. This post dives into why the Devils should take care of their young star winger with a lucrative long-term contract.

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NHL: Montreal Canadiens at New Jersey Devils
The time has come to pay Jesper Bratt
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Gerard and I begun to take a look at the Devils restricted free agents as we approach the offseason. I wrote a deep dive on the career of Pavel Zacha to this point while Gerard evaluated Miles Wood and how he fits into the equation big picture.

Today, we’re going to take a look at Jesper Bratt. Bratt was arguably the Devils best player in 2021-22 and was voted team MVP by the staff here at All About the Jersey in our year-end awards. The Devils have a few options in front of them in regards to Bratt, but in reality, there is only one option that truly makes sense. They should pay their young star winger like the core piece he is and continue to build around him as they’re doing with Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes up front.

Who is Jesper Bratt?

Jesper Bratt was the Devils sixth round draft pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, going 162nd overall. The Devils signed him to a standard three year entry level contract (ELC) on May 13th, 2017. Bratt surprisingly made the Devils roster in his first NHL training camp a few months later and he’s been an NHL regular ever since, playing out the three years on his ELC.

Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald signed Bratt to a 2 year contract extension with a $2.75M average annual value (AAV) prior to the 2020-21 season. This was a fair deal at the time with Bratt producing 100 points over his first 185 career games, and that deal only continued to age well for the Devils with Bratt’s breakout season in 2021-22.

Bratt’s second NHL contract expired upon the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. He has earned arbitration rights and will require a qualifying offer of $3.45M for the Devils to retain his rights this offseason. Its safe to say the Devils will indeed offer him a qualifying offer while they attempt to hammer out a long-term deal.

What has Bratt done as a Devil?

Jesper Bratt turned heads when he made the Devils in his first training camp before the 2017-18 season. He burst onto the scene with three goals and two assists in his first two NHL games. Bratt finished his rookie season with 13 goals and 22 assists over 74 games and was one of several rookies to play pivotal roles in helping the Devils make the playoffs in 2017-18, alongside Nico Hischier and Will Butcher.

Bratt increased his scoring rate from 0.47 PPG his rookie season to 0.65 PPG in Year 2, but his goal scoring took a bit of a dip as he didn’t find the back of the net until Thanksgiving weekend in Tampa. This is likely due to the lingering effects of a broken jaw he sustained in training camp that season, causing him to miss the first 13 games of the regular season. Bratt picked up the pace after New Year’s Day 2019 with 19 points in 25 games. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck again as Bratt missed the final 15 games of the season with a lower body injury suffered vs. Columbus on March 5, 2019. He finished his second NHL campaign with 8 goals and 25 assists in just 51 games.

Bratt picked up the goal scoring pace with 16 goals in 2019-20 over 60 games but his points percentage took a little dip with only 16 helpers and a 0.53 PPG pace. His third NHL season ended prematurely along with everybody else on the Devils when the NHL paused operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

The 2020-21 season started late for Jesper Bratt as he missed the entirety of training camp. He also missed the first six games of the regular season, as contract negotiations and visa issues delayed his start to the season. Once he arrived, he recorded one assist in three games before the Devils were shut down for over two weeks due to a team-wide COVID outbreak. After the Devils returned, Bratt got into a rhythm and looked like his usual self with 30 points in 46 games (0.65 PPG). It wasn’t all positive however, as Bratt found himself in Lindy Ruff’s doghouse at times and was benched in-game and even healthy scratched at one point.

Bratt got off to a rough start this past season with no points over his first five games. To make matters worse, he drew Ruff’s ire again with an in-game benching vs. Calgary as the veteran coach was looking to send a message to his young winger.

As you can see in the highlight video above, Bratt proceeded to go on a season-long scoring tear, with career highs in goals (26), assists (47), primary assists (26), points (73), and ice time (17:26). Bratt also led all Devils regular forwards in xGF% (56.86%), HDCF% (59.06%), & CF% (53.89%). Needless to say, Bratt got the message Ruff was trying to send.

No matter where he was in the lineup or who he played with, Bratt delivered. He produced in the early portion of the season when he was on a line with Dawson Mercer and Andreas Johnsson. He produced in the middle portion of the season when he paired up with Jack Hughes. He produced when the Devils moved Yegor Sharangovich and Mercer to Hughes’s line and Ruff paired Bratt with Hischier. He was on pace for a point per game for the majority of the campaign until a late-season slump dipped him below that threshold, but there’s no denying that #63 broke out in a big way in his 5th NHL season.

(stats courtesy of Hockey-Reference)

(Advanced stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick)

Bratt has gone from being an obscure late-round dart throw to a player who is 7th in total points from his draft class despite 161 players being chosen before him. He’s developed into a point-producing top-line winger with a plus shot. More impressive than that though is his playmaking ability, his creativity with the puck, his skating, and his brilliant vision passing the puck. Bratt doesn’t turn 24 years old until July, so he’s just beginning to scratch the surface of what kind of offensive player he can be as he enters his prime.

What will Bratt do going forward?

There’s little reason to think that Bratt won’t continue to produce points in bunches, especially if he’s playing in a Top Six role with Hughes or Hischier as his centermen. All three of these players are entering the primes of their careers together.

Bratt’s shooting percentage (13.2% this year) isn’t abnormally high where it would suggest his production this year was a little fluky. It wasn’t even his career best as that came in 2019-20. One thing Bratt is doing though is shooting more and getting more shots on net. He attempted 4.2 shots per game this past season and got 2.6 shots per game on net, both of which are also career bests. As he’s become a more prolific offensive player, his offensive zone starts have increased to 67.4%. Bratt finished 14th in the NHL in 5-on-5 points with 51, ahead of some of the best players in the league including Jonathan Huberdeau, Jordan Kyrou, Nathan MacKinnon, and Artemi Panarin to name a few.

It’s also worth remembering that the Devils power play has been dreadful the last two seasons, earning Mark Recchi a well-deserved pink slip last month. Bratt was a fixture on the top power play unit throughout most of this season. He did what he could with Recchi’s broken unit, adding 3 goals and 15 assists on the man advantage. It would stand to reason that if the Devils don’t ice a bottom-five power play unit again this season, Bratt would be one of the primary beneficiaries of any increased production.

I believe the floor for Bratt moving forward would be a season with a low 60s point total. With his place in the Devils Top Six secure, I don’t see why he can’t be over a PPG player at his peak if everything is going right, the Devils power play unit is clicking, and he’s getting a little lucky with his shot.

Who are Bratt’s comparables and what is his value?

The list of players under the age of 24 who have 5 years of NHL experience, are signing their third contract, have roughly 200 points in approximately 300 games (203 career points in 307 games for Bratt, a .66 PPG rate) AND their last season is right around a PPG is a short list. That list really only consists of one player....Jesper Bratt. We’ll do our best to find comparable players who have signed in the last year to give us an idea of what Bratt’s big payday might look like.

The ink hasn’t even dried yet on Bryan Rust’s new 6 year deal with the Penguins, which is worth $5.125M AAV. Rust is 7 years older than Bratt, this is his 4th contract, and he has played in 117 more NHL games, but their career scoring rates are similar with Rust at 0.63 PPG vs 0.66 for Bratt. Rust was also just under a PPG this past season. Tom Fitzgerald would probably do cartwheels in his office if Bratt signed a similar deal to what Rust got. Surely, Bratt will look to do better. Let’s consider this the floor since Rust clearly left money on the table to bypass unrestricted free agency and stay in a good situation in Pittsburgh.

Brady Tkachuk had over 100 less games experience than Bratt when he signed his 8 year extension worth $8.3M annually with the Senators before this past season. It was also Tkachuk’s second contract as he was a former 4th overall pick who is 2 years younger than Bratt. Tkachuk checks in with 0.63 PPG vs. 0.66 for Bratt as well, so Bratt and his representation might be eyeing this sort of deal as the ceiling while Fitzgerald probably isn’t looking to top what he gave Jack Hughes six months ago.

Andrei Svechnikov might be in that sweet spot of what an agreement between both sides could look like. Svechnikov is also 2 years younger than Bratt and is only on his second contract. He outscored Bratt with 0.68 PPG when he signed his extension. Svechnikov just finished the first season of an eight year deal worth $7.75M annually. I could see Bratt ultimately signing for something close to this.

The Devils will presumably looking to max out term and lock in Bratt at a fair number for as many years as possible, but Bratt is still young enough (his 24th birthday is on July 30) where he might prefer to go with a shorter term option. If he does this, he’ll hit UFA after his age 27 or 28 season instead of at 30 or 31 and potentially earn more money down the road. The previous comps looked at what Bratt might get if the Devils maxed out term on a 7 or 8 year deal, so let’s look at a few comps on shorter deals.

On his third NHL contract, Jakub Vrana got 3 years and $5.25M from the Red Wings before last season. Vrana’s point production lags a little bit behind Bratt’s at 0.57 PPG and he’s never really flirted with a PPG over a full season either, so this is probably the floor of a shorter deal.

Sam Reinhart signed a 3 year extension worth $6.5M AAV with the Panthers before this past season and posted a nearly identical career PPG rate to Bratt to that point. Reinhart, 25 years old at signing, also had about 150 more NHL games under his belt when he signed his third NHL contract, so we might at the higher end of what Bratt can get on a shorter term deal.

Pavel Buchnevich secured a 4 year deal worth $5.8M AAV after being traded from the Rangers to the Blues this past offseason. Buchnevich, who was 26 years old when he signed his third NHL contract, compares favorably with Bratt in terms of point production with .65 PPG and wasn’t too far off from a PPG pace during the COVID shortened season of 2020-21. If Bratt takes a 4 year deal, I think they’ll negotiate off of this contract.

What do the experts say Bratt’s value is? Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s model puts Bratt’s market value at $10.8M, which is way too high. Dobber Hockey’s Alexander MacLean has Bratt at $5.07M in his algorithm, which seems low unless the Devils and Bratt go short-term on an extension. Chris Gear, a former Assistant GM for the Canucks who now contributes for Daily Faceoff, projects the Devils give Bratt either $5.15M for 1 year or $6.33M over six years and notes the Devils might want to see Bratt repeat his performance this year before paying him like a top winger. That latter deal would be a big win for Tom Fitzgerald, but I think Bratt can probably do a little better.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll see these numbers, years, and comps are all over the place, but that’s also the point in that there really is no ideal comparison to Bratt.

All of this raises a very important question.....

What will the Devils do with Bratt, and what would I do?

I said in my Zacha post last week that I believe in paying core players fair market value and this is no different. Bratt is one of the Devils best players and should be compensated as such.

This is where I think its important to bring up leverage, and how when you have leverage in negotiations, you need to use it. The last time Bratt’s representation and Tom Fitzgerald negotiated a contract, the Devils held the hammer. Bratt did not have arbitration rights at the time and wound up missing training camp and regular season games because he had no leverage to get more than 2 years and $2.75M AAV from the Devils. This time around, I believe Bratt holds all the leverage and should wield it. It does raise the question about what exactly Bratt is looking for in his next contract.

Bratt is young enough where he can take a 4 year deal and become a UFA after his age 27 season. It remains to be seen what UFA wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg get this summer, but Bratt could feasibly be the top unrestricted free agent winger on the open market as early as 2024 if he continues to produce at this rate. His representation might simply eye whatever Gaudreau or Forsberg get this summer on the open market and negotiate off that. Keep in mind, the Devils only have two more seasons of control with Bratt, which only increases the player’s leverage.

Tom Fitzgerald seems to recognize how important Bratt is to the Devils going forward.

(No, I do not believe Bratt is really at risk of an offer sheet in a league where five players since 2010 have signed one.)

Saying you want a player around long-term and showing you believe a player is a worthwhile long-term investment are two different things. If the Devils want to secure Bratt’s services through his age 30 or 31 season, I believe they need to offer at least $7M AAV on a seven or eight year deal and they might need to go as high as to match Andrei Svechnikov’s AAV at $7.75M to get Bratt’s signature. I don’t think the Devils will make Bratt the highest paid forward on the team by topping what Jack Hughes just got, so a reasonable compromise might be for Bratt’s AAV to match what Nico Hischier got at $7.25M AAV when he signed his long-term deal two and a half years ago. This would be ideal.

If Bratt wants to hit UFA earlier, I think a $6M AAV over four years is fair. This wouldn’t be my preference as I’d rather keep Bratt around as long as possible, but Bratt has to want that as well and this is a business, first and foremost. To his credit, Bratt has said he sees “New Jersey as my home” and that he wants to be part of the solution here. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be amenable to a lucrative long-term deal if that’s how he truly feels and the Devils are willing to commit. I’ve also seen enough players come and go here over the years where I’ll believe someone wants to be here long-term when they put pen to paper.

The worst-case scenario would be that negotiations go poorly, with Bratt and the Devils settling for a 1 or 2 year bridge deal similar to what Kevin Fiala got this year from the Wild ($5.1M AAV). In that scenario, I’d probably start shopping Bratt around the league now if I were Fitzgerald, as Bratt’s value right now is as high as its ever going to be. Let’s be clear though that at this time, there’s no reason to think this is something we need to be concerned with.

One last thing for Tom Fitzgerald to consider is how adding another big money contract impacts how he builds out the rest of the roster going forward. The salary cap ceiling is currently at $82.5M, having increased by $1M since last season. The cap will likely continue to increase incrementally going forward. Hughes, Hischier, and Dougie Hamilton will combine to make 29.4% of available dollars towards the cap ceiling over the next five seasons if the cap doesn’t increase again. That would leave 70.6% of their cap space available to build the rest of the 23 man roster (assuming if the Devils spend to the ceiling, which, they haven’t in years but might if the team shows they’re ready to contend). If Bratt is getting the Hischier contract, that percentage drops to 61.8% for the remaining 19 players they need. The Devils should be able to build a contender with their top 4 players making over 38% of the cap, but the margin for error decreases significantly. Tougher decisions will need to be made elsewhere. Fitzgerald will need to be careful not to close any window of contention this team might have before that window ever opens by getting into cap hell. With how conservatively the Devils have approached their cap management post-Lamoriello, I don’t think this is a major concern.

Final Thoughts

I believe Jesper Bratt is a core piece for the Devils and should be appropriately compensated with a long-term deal that keeps him in New Jersey for the foreseeable future. I think Bratt is capable of putting up more seasons like the one he just did this year and I’d like to see a homegrown star be rewarded. Selfishly, I’d also like for all of Bratt’s best years in the NHL to be in a Devils sweater. If Tom Fitzgerald can get him to sign for around $7.5M or less through his age 30 season, I think that will be a success for the Devils as they continue to build this team going forward.

What would you do with Jesper Bratt? Is he a core piece in your eyes that the Devils should be building around, and should he be compensated as such? What do you think is a fair long-term deal, or even a fair comparison? Can Bratt be even better than he was this past season, or was this the ceiling for him? Or are you skeptical that this year was a fluke and you want to err on the side of caution with a shorter term deal? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!