There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about with the New Jersey Devils this season. They’ve won just 21 games since their 4-0-0 start and are in a race for the ‘Jack Hughes Sweepstakes’ at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. They’ve also been decimated by a rash of injuries to star players like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Nico Hischier.
Those injuries have opened the door for some of their younger players to get more ice time. One player who’s taken advantage of the larger role is Jesper Bratt, who has 17 points over his last 20 games played, a far cry from his end to 2017-18. A strong close to the season would be a significant development for Bratt and the Devils as they head into the offseason.
Bratt Generating Much-Needed Offense
Someone needed to step up with the Devils’ top players dropping like flies, and Bratt has done so in a big way. The team has averaged 55.41 shot attempts per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice, ranked first on the Devils. Their expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) with Bratt on the ice is 2.50, ranked fifth on the team.
At an individual level, Bratt is playing his best hockey of the season. He has 12 points at five-on-five, ranked first on the team, as well as nine primary points, also ranked first on the team. He’s averaging 2.77 points per 60 minutes (P/60), which is first on the team by a comfortable margin, and he has the third most scoring chances and the fourth most high-danger chances over that span (via Natural Stat Trick).
If there’s a trade-off with Bratt, it’s that his defensive game needs work. For as much as the Devils generated with him on the ice, they’ve given up a little bit more. They’ve allowed 64.65 shot attempts per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice, the most on the team, and their xGA/60 is higher than their xGF/60 with him on the ice.
The good news is the Devils are not looking for Bratt to be a defensive stalwart. It’s something they’d like to see him improve, but for where they are now, they need him to continue generating offense. There’s a good chance most of their key players won’t return this season. Hall just had a procedure on his knee, while Palmieri is week-to-week with a lower-body injury.
That leaves Bratt as one of the Devils’ main threats to generate offense as the season winds down. Even though there’s not much incentive to win games, they still need to score some goals from time-to-time. If Bratt goes cold, then I’m not sure where the offense comes from, especially if Hischier misses extended time.
Bratt Flipping the Script from 2017-18
Bratt’s second-half production has changed in a big way from the close of 2017-18. He had five points and 35 shots on goal in his final 30 games and had only two points the entire month of March. He’s already matched that total in the team’s only two games of the month, and he should continue to get an opportunity to play big minutes with the injuries mounting up.
A big reason for his decline play was the lack of shots and chances he generated towards the end of 2017-18, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Last season also marked the first time he had played more than 50 games in a season, but, as Bratt will tell you, it was more in his head than the physical aspect of the game.
“I don’t think it was my body. I think it was more mentally, maybe,” Bratt said to Chris Ryan of NJ Advance Media last April. “It’s tough with all the travel and everything. I think for next year I’m going to have more experience, and it was a great year for me to have this.”
With just a month of games left and the Devils all but eliminated from playoff contention, the rest of the season will be about developing their young players. Those first season struggles proved to be a valuable learning experience for Bratt — he learned from what went wrong and has been one of the Devils’ best players as of late.
How Bratt closes out the Devils’ 16 remaining games will be something to keep an eye. They’re facing a critical offseason filled with plenty of needs, and they could use two more top-six forwards. But, if he keeps it up, he might be able to address that need without them having to dip into free agency. His 33 points in 50 games would put him on pace for 54 points in an 82-game season, which is top-six worthy. It’s his defense he needs to improve, but if that comes around, he’ll establish himself as the top-six forward the Devils need heading into the offseason.
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Advanced stats from Offside Review, except where noted
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017