The conversation surrounding the New Jersey Devils right now is admittedly not the best. Between the numerous injuries on the team, especially Jack Hughes, and the atrocious goaltending we have been seeing, especially from Vitek Vanecek, it has been hard to focus on the positives. I get that. Today, however, I want to try to stem the tide of that negativity, at least for a moment, and hopefully get some positive feelings back into the conversation. Yes, the Devils play Florida tonight, and it is going to be a brutally tough game to win, especially handicapped as this roster is right now, but it isn’t all bad, and there are still some really good things happening for this team.
One of the more obvious people to discuss when looking at positives would be Michael McLeod, who has had one of the biggest growths we have seen this season on this roster, especially considering how unexpected it was. No one saw this huge growth coming, especially at his age, and considering what we have seen from him up until this year. If he can sustain this heightened level of play, it really is a major positive and high point for this team this season.
Another positive to discuss would be Simon Nemec, who I got into last week, so I don’t want to dive too much into him again. But here is a 19-year-old who did not start the year in the NHL, but has since become a staple of this blue line since being called up. He is playing like a veteran out there most nights, despite having very little experience, and is one of the better defenders for this team in many games. The Devils might have really landed a gem at #2 overall with Nemec, and he is only going to get better.
But someone I want to highlight today is a player we talked more about at the beginning of the season given how awesome he played at the start, but he has since flown more under the radar. Despite that, he has continued to play very strong hockey and is one of the best players on the team. That would be Jesper Bratt. And the reason to really highlight him today, and how good he has been, is that with injuries, especially to Jack, Bratt needs to be the guy that takes over, at least to a degree, and continues to put up points and continue to make the top line productive.
And that is something he is absolutely capable of doing, especially when you look at his with or without you numbers. Bratt simply makes everyone he plays with better. Their numbers improve when they are on the ice with him, and this is true basically across the board. Just check the numbers. Here is a chart of all forwards that have played with Bratt for at least 100 minutes so far, and their WOWY numbers for both possession and expected goals. Info from Natural Stat Trick.
What these numbers tell us is that all of these forwards benefit from playing with Bratt, and they basically all play worse when not on the ice with him. The only exception to that, to a small degree, is Ondrej Palat, who has better expected goal numbers than Bratt does when the two are apart, but it is only very slightly, and his numbers are much better when on the ice with Bratt together. Otherwise, Bratt makes all of these guys better players when on the ice together, and when separated, Bratt has better numbers than the other player in every case except for the one I just mentioned. That is what he has been bringing to the table this year, and it is highly impressive.
The most impressive part of this is that this is all true with top six players, playing in a top line and against tough competition. This isn’t like playing with fourth liners and making them better. Bratt is playing with the best guys on the team and is making all of them better when playing together. And top lines play against the opposition’s top line often, so he has tough competition and is still producing this night-in and night-out. And he has perhaps the best ability of all of them, at least to this point: availability. He has yet to miss a game this season, something the Devils desperately need considering the other top talent missing time. Having Jack, Nico, and Dougie missing all of this time has been tough for the Devils’ playoff chances and staying in the hunt, but thanks to Bratt always being out there, they still have a decent chance of getting in. If Bratt had been hurt as well at some point this season, the team could be in a much more dire position than they are now.
In the end, with goaltending being so bad, and with the injuries mentioned, it is tough to be super positive about the team right now. They are still in the hunt thankfully, and they can win on any given night thanks to the talent on this roster, but they are in a tough fight, make no doubt about it. But with Bratt playing as well as he has for this team, they have a chance, and that is a good thing for sure.