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New Jersey Devils RFA Profile: Jesper Bratt

Once again, Jesper Bratt is due a new contract. Will the Devils and Bratt finally agree to a long-term deal?

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes
What will the Devils do with Jesper Bratt?
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The RFA and UFA player profiles continue on here at All About The Jersey. Last week, I wrote about Timo Meier and mentioned that he was arguably the most important Devils player to hit RFA status this offseason. While I believe that to be true, Jesper Bratt is the one other RFA for the Devils who might have something to say about that.

Bratt had another quality season in 2022-23, proving that his breakout 2021-22 season was not a fluke, but he has also inched closer to becoming a UFA as the Devils now only have one season of team control remaining. But who is Jesper Bratt? What does he do well, and what might he be looking for in a long-term deal after proving his level of production is real? Let’s dive in and answer those important questions.

Who is Jesper Bratt?

I profiled Jesper Bratt the last time he went to restricted free agency one year ago. You can read that here. Bratt is a six-year NHL veteran who is entering restricted free agency for the final time. He is a smaller, speedy winger who drives offense and has beaten the odds as a longshot former sixth-round pick to become one of the better scoring wingers in the league. Only six players from his draft class have more points in the NHL, a list includes a former Hart Trophy winner in Auston Matthews and a potential Conn Smythe trophy winner this year in Matthew Tkachuk. Five of those players ahead of Bratt on the points list went in the Top 7 of that draft. Not too shabby for a former 162nd overall pick.

I wrote in last year’s profile that the Devils should come to a long-term agreement with Jesper Bratt. That did not happen. The Devils offered Bratt arbitration. They nearly went through the process of actually going to arbitration and potentially torching the relationship between the team and player until a deal came down at literally the last minute to avoid arbitration. The Devils and Bratt agreed to a 1-year, $5.45M contract, ensuring that they would get to do this entire song and dance with his contract again a year later. That time has now come.

With a year to go until Bratt hits the open market, expect the Devils to offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights while they try to once again hammer out a long-term deal. Bratt’s qualifying offer is $5.45M, but both he and the Devils have said publicly they would like to get a multi-year deal done. We’ll see if the parties involved can agree this time around.

What has Bratt done as a Devil?

Credit: Hockey-Reference
Credit: Natural Stat Trick

Bratt followed up his breakout season in 2021-22 with his first 30+ goal campaign, matching his point output from the previous season, and playing in all 82 games for the Devils for the first time in his career. The individual highlight of his season might’ve been his first career hat trick in the Devils 5-2 win over the Lightning on March 19th.

And then the playoffs happened.

Like most of the young players on the Devils, Jesper Bratt was getting his first extended run of postseason play in his career (he played 1 postseason game during the Tampa series back in 2018). He got the primary assist on arguably the most important goal of the Devils run in overtime of Game 3, as Dougie Hamilton’s overtime winner got the Devils on the board in that series and turned momentum. Without that goal, the Devils playoff run might’ve ended in 4 or 5 games instead of 12, so that shouldn’t be forgotten or dismissed.

Bratt scored his only goal of the postseason, an empty netter, in the Game 7 win over the Rangers.

Bratt also picked up a couple of primary assists in the Devils Game 3 win over Carolina in their second round series. And that will do it for the Jesper Bratt postseason highlight portion of this article. Bratt had his moments during the postseason. Unfortunately, they were too few and far between and he didn’t have as many as we all would’ve liked.

The advanced stats will tell you that Bratt played well this postseason. They’ll say that the high danger chances are through the roof, as well as the expected goals, and that Bratt was good as a result. But as you know by now, expected goals aren’t what gets a team to advance in the playoffs this time of the year. It’s actual, REAL, goals. The ones that are scored in actual, REAL, games and not theorized on a Google Doc somewhere. The ones that Bratt, along with several others on the Devils, didn’t score. Bratt didn’t score these goals, in part, because he didn’t go to the front of the net, which Lindy Ruff correctly called him out on publicly after Game 4 of the Carolina series. One empty net goal in 12 playoff games from one of your top players isn’t going to cut it.

But I would caution against overreacting to a small sample size. After all, we’re a week removed from me advocating paying Timo Meier and he didn’t fare a whole lot better in the postseason. It’s very easy to forget that the Devils faced Igor Shesterkin seven times and arguably the best defense in the NHL another five times. It’s very “prisoner of the moment” to say Bratt stunk in the playoffs and I’m guilty of it too. I mentioned somewhere in the comments of one of the threads that I thought Bratt was playing his way off the roster with how rough his postseason was. That might be a bit extreme looking back on it a few weeks removed from the playoffs now. There’s no sugarcoating it though. Bratt wasn’t good enough. And considering he is up for a new contract, its a fair critique. This doesn’t mean I think Bratt is a bad player. It just is what it is.

Generally speaking though, its tough to see how the Devils are better off without Bratt. They still need that offensive production over the course of the regular season. Aside from Bratt, the only other wingers on the Devils who I would say are capable of 70+ point NHL seasons are Timo Meier and maybe Dawson Mercer when he enters his prime. Only one of those players right now is under contract for next season.

Bratt might not play that rugged, playoff style that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye because he hits someone or is getting under someone’s skin like Meier did throughout the Rangers series, but it would be short-sighted to dismiss Bratt’s contributions to the group. Hopefully, he learns from this experience, learns what he needs to do the next time the Devils are in the playoffs, gets a little better puck luck, and is better for it.

What will Bratt do going forward?

Bratt might struggle to consistently hit 30 goals year in and year out, as he needed a full 82 game slate and 15% shooting to get there. With that said though, Bratt has always been a good passer and has shown the ability to rack up lots of assists. Entering his age 25 season and in his prime, I don’t see why Bratt can’t consistently post 65-70 points in a season annually now that he’s posted 73 two years in a row. This level of production solidifies him as a Top Six scoring winger.

One thing that could hurt Bratt’s production going forward is power play time. Once again, the Devils struggled to consistently generate offense on the top power play unit. Bratt had been one of the mainstays on that top unit, but had been phased out in the latter portion of this past season as the Devils tried to find the right five-man unit going into the playoffs and even in the postseason. Bratt is talented enough offensively where he should be on one of the power play units. Bratt had 8 goals and 14 assists with the man advantage this past season, and he’ll need that time on the top unit if he hopes to keep posting 70 point seasons going forward. The Devils have a bigger issue at hand with their power play where they need to figure out a way to consistently gain the zone and generate scoring chances, and that’s a discussion for another day. With that said, Bratt’s counting stats could be negatively impacted if he’s not getting time on the top unit, and its at least on the table that he won’t be moving forward.

Bratt spent more time with Hughes than Hischier at 5v5 this past season (567:46 with Hughes at 5v5, 435:33 with Hischier) and posted a higher xGF% with Hughes (63.58%) than Hischier (56.72%). The opposite was true in the playoffs though as Bratt played far more with Hischier than Hughes (122:12 to 35:42). I don’t want to say that Bratt struggled in the playoffs because he was away from Hughes. I do think we saw a lot of Hischier’s line being used in a shutdown defensive role in the postseason, and I suspect Lindy Ruff felt having Hughes and Bratt on the same line in the playoffs would present matchup problems for the Devils, which is why the lineup was deployed the way it was. After all, there was a stretch late in the regular season where it looked like the time had come to separate Hughes and Bratt.

I say all that to say that it might make more sense for Bratt to primarily play with Hischier moving forward. But as we all know, even if that is the plan for now, that plan could easily change during the season as Ruff isn’t shy about switching the lines if he doesn’t like what he sees.

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

A lot has changed in a year, including the comparables for Jesper Bratt. The two players though who compare most favorably to Bratt though both signed new deals prior to last season. They are Kevin Fiala and Jordan Kyrou.

Fiala, who was traded from the Wild to the Kings last offseason, is two years older than Bratt. He just completed the first season of a 7-year deal he signed with Los Angeles worth $7.875M AAV. Like Bratt, Fiala is known for creating offense out of nowhere. Like Bratt, Fiala enjoyed his first 30-goal season in the final year of his previous deal. The PPG for both players is very similar over their previous three seasons. Fiala is at 0.91 PPG while Bratt is at 0.86 PPG in a similar timeframe. And like Bratt, Fiala had a relatively quiet postseason before the Wild traded him to the Kings. Fiala had 3 assists in six games for the Wild while Bratt had one goal (an ENG) and 5 assists in 12 games during the Devils run. Minnesota didn’t necessarily want to trade Fiala, but with the Wild taking their salary cap medicine the next few years thanks to the twin buyouts for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, they didn’t really have the space to accommodate the new deal Fiala needed. The Kings didn’t waste any time getting Fiala signed, so its fair to say they weren’t too concerned with a mediocre postseason the year prior either.

Jordan Kyrou, who is roughly 3 months older than Bratt, signed an 8-year, $8.125M extension with the Blues that kicks in at the start of the 2023-24 season. Kyrou is similar to Bratt in that he too plays an up-tempo style of hockey. Kyrou also has one 30 goal season to his name, which he had this past season after he signed that deal. Kyrou is at 0.88 PPG over the last three seasons, which compares favorably to Bratt at 0.86 PPG, as well. Bratt has a larger body of work at the NHL level, as Kyrou signed his deal before he even played his 200th NHL game, but that says more about Bratt reaching the NHL at the age he did while Kyrou’s development took a more traditional route with him playing two OHL seasons after his draft year and spending some time in the AHL as well.

What does the rest of the league have to say about Bratt’s value? Dom Luszczyszyn’s player card at The Athletic has Bratt’s value at $9.3M. Alex Chauvancy from The Hockey Writers also used Fiala and Kyrou as comparisons and predicted Bratt could get $8.2M back in March, as Bratt is a better overall player than Kyrou. I’d agree with that assessment. Evolving-Hockey projected a 58% chance Bratt signs for 4-6 years at approximately $7M AAV. That projection to me feels low, although it wouldn’t shock me if Bratt took a little less term to hit UFA while he’s still in his 20s. Dobber Hockey projected Bratt for around $7.8M back in February, which is a little less than what Fiala got from Los Angeles. Since they’re similar players and Fiala signed a year ago, I think Bratt should be able to top $7.875M.

I think if Bratt signs a long-term deal with the Devils, its probably going to come in somewhere around those two numbers for Fiala and Kyrou. Whether or not you think Bratt is worth that kind of money is an entirely different conversation altogether, but $8-9M dollars is the going rate for scoring wingers with that level of NHL experience. The option is to pay them what they’re worth, or trade them and waste time trying to replace them, at which point it’ll be more expensive two or three years down the road when you finally do replace them. The bird in the hand is indeed worth two in the bush.

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

Jesper Bratt reiterated at breakup day that he wants to be in New Jersey.

Of course, if any of this sounds familiar, its because Bratt more or less said the same exact thing one year ago on breakup day.

One person who has heard this for awhile now and is seemingly as sick of hearing about Jesper Bratt’s contractual situation as we all are is Jack Hughes.

The Devils have been doing this contractual song-and-dance with Bratt for a few years now. It seems like a lifetime ago, but Bratt missed the first few games of the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season as he was unsigned through training camp and into the start of the season. The two sides didn’t come to an agreement last offseason other than a 1-year deal that kicked the can down the road for another year. Tom Fitzgerald tried to re-engage talks during the season, but again, the two sides have yet to agree to a long-term deal. Fitzgerald didn’t seem too concerned when the topic came up at his end-of-season media availability a few weeks ago, and neither did Bratt. Fitzgerald also mentioned that they did “pause” talks as the playoffs were going on. But as of this writing, the deal still isn’t done. So you’ll forgive me if I approach this situation like how Jack Hughes appears to be. Hughes seems tired of it. I’m tired of it as a fan and blogger. I’m sure you’re tired of it as well, as this has gone on for a few years now. Hughes couldn’t have summed it up any better. If you say you want to be here, then sign the deal.

When I wrote about Bratt and Meier’s situation a few months ago, I noted that throughout Fitzgerald’s run as GM, there has only been one player where every contract negotiation has felt like pulling teeth. That player has been Jesper Bratt. Fitzgerald has been able to negotiate big money long-term deals to UFAs, big money long-term deals to homegrown players on ELCs, medium length contracts with average money, and smaller deals to some of the younger players on the roster. He has been able to find common ground with just about everybody currently on the Devils roster and they agreed to a deal where everyone is happy. The only player who has consistently been a thorn in everyone’s side over multiple contractual negotiations in that timeframe has been Bratt. We’re not in the room. We don’t know if its Bratt playing hardball. We don’t know if its his agent overplaying his hand and Bratt is just going along with whatever his agent thinks is best. I tend to think its the latter but it doesn’t matter. Its easy to see why all parties involved and some parties like Hughes that aren’t directly involved are tired of this continually being a story.

If it were up to me, I’m offering Bratt something in the $8M-8.2M AAV range for however many years it takes to keep Bratt happy. Whether he gets 4-5 years so he hits UFA again while he’s still in his 20s or he gets max term doesn’t make much difference to me. I would guess that the offer Fitzgerald is alluding to that Bratt has been sitting on isn’t that far off from this, but we don’t know the specifics, so its tough to comment otherwise.

If I had to guess, I think Bratt sits on this offer as long as he can. I’ll be cautiously optimistic and guess that Bratt does finally sign a long-term deal only because deadlines are a thing, the Devils do need a decision one way or the other, there’s a real possibility a trade is coming if he doesn’t sign now, and nobody involved wants to go to arbitration, The fact that both Bratt and Fitzgerald seemed optimistic about it getting done this time gives me a reason to take them at their word. But would I be shocked if it fell apart, Bratt took the qualifying offer, and Bratt is traded at some point over the next 8 months while he plays out his walk year? No, it would not surprise me.

Bratt is only a year from unrestricted free agency at this point. Bratt has a lot of leverage over his future, even with him having a bad playoffs. The endgame this entire time might have been for Bratt to go year-to-year and hit UFA just as the salary cap is about to go up, at which point Bratt can simply go to the highest bidder. If that’s what he wants to do, that is his prerogative. He’ll have earned the right to do that. But this is also why I don’t put a lot of stock into players saying they want to be here. Until the player puts pen to paper, they’re just empty words.

Final Thoughts

Your mileage may vary when it comes to the “Is Jesper Bratt a core member of the Devils” or “Should the Devils pay Jesper Bratt X” debate, but one thing that isn’t up for debate is that he is a legitimate top-six NHL scoring winger. He’s not quite as talented a goal scorer as Meier, who we profiled last week, nor is he anywhere close to being one of the truly elite wingers in the league like David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov, or Matthew Tkachuk. But Bratt is a very good offensive player with top notch speed who can make opposing teams look silly trying to defend him. With two 70+ point seasons under his belt, it’s time for him to secure the bag.

The issue with Bratt is two-fold. Bratt isn’t a particularly big or physical player. He’s not known for mixing it up, blocking shots, or being a shutdown defensive winger. He can be a little too much of a perimeter player. Because of that, the optics aren’t great when he goes ice cold in the playoffs, Brent Burns is firing distance shots past him and into the net, and his coach is calling him out for not going to the front of the net more. The Devils probably need to pay Bratt regardless and chalk up his struggles to a combination of small sample size, how the opposition is playing, and bad luck. After all, you still need guys like Bratt to get through an 82 game regular season. But if the Devils pay Bratt, they’d be committing long-term to another smaller forward. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself if the player is willing to pay the price and play a hard-nosed game once the playoffs start. Whether Bratt will do that the next time around, we shall see.

The bigger issue is that we have another summer of “Will he or won’t he?” in regards to whether Bratt will actually sign long-term to look forward to. I would like Bratt back, as the Devils are better off with him than without him. I also don’t want the Devils to waste Hughes and Hischier prime years searching for a replacement because Bratt and/or his agent might be difficult to work with. But it does feel like this situation will come to a head once and for all this summer, where either Bratt is signed or he’s traded and playing elsewhere. This has gone on long enough and its time for the Devils to get a definitive answer to “Do you want to be here or not?”

What would you do with Jesper Bratt? What do you think the Devils will do? Would you be willing to let him sign his qualifying offer and play out the year? Do the Devils need to trade him now if he won’t sign long-term? How much of a setback would it be if the Devils ultimately lost Bratt? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!