“I see New Jersey as a place where I want to make a difference.” That was what Jesper Bratt said during his final media availability for the 2021-22 season. This past season Bratt certainly made a difference – leading the New Jersey Devils in points (73), assists (47), and (26) goals, which were all career-highs.
“I see New Jersey as my home. This is something I’ve been a part of for five years now – a team not really succeeding and an organization not really succeeding – and I want to be a part of changing that. I want to be a part of the team that brings this organization back to being a championship team.”
Bratt did his part last season, and so did a few others. It just wasn’t enough. The Devils didn’t have enough. But for the first time in a long time, it felt like they started inching towards that ever-elusive ‘right path’ to sustainable success.
During his first four seasons with the Devils, the 162nd pick in the 2016 NHL Draft battled the same demon that every young NHL player does; consistency. He wasn’t consistent enough plain and simple. You can take every chart, every graph, every stat and spin it however you want, but he wasn’t consistent enough. He didn’t play his game enough. He passed more than he shot the puck. And that’s part of the reason why at times he was held out of the lineup.
But all of that is one trillion percent okay. He’s 23-years-old right now and will turn 24 on July 30. He was developing during his first four seasons and still is today. What he did this season was show what he can do when all cylinders are firing at once. He gets it now and is seventh in points among his draft class. And it was evident watching him terrorize opponents game-in and game-out this season. It also helps when you’re on the ice alongside a supremely talented player like Jack Hughes, but Bratt was able to do similar things when Hughes was out with injuries – which shows his growth and development.
“Jesper Bratt is a big part of our future. We saw that…he’s a tremendous young player. Where he has grown over the last two years…we want Jesper Bratt here long term,” GM Tom Fitzgerald said of no. 63, who is due for a raise this summer as a restricted free agent.
“That’s my job, to work out a deal with his agent at some point. Offer sheets? I can’t control that. He has arbitration rights, we know that. The goal is to get Jesper Bratt under contract and be part of the puzzle that we’re building here, and realistically, prices are also part of the puzzle. That’s where we have to figure out where we are with him. We need Jesper Bratt in our lineup. We know what kind of player he is, and he makes us better.”
I haven’t heard anything one way or another, but I would be shocked if the Devils do not announce a new deal with Bratt before the NHL Draft (July 7-8), or the start of Free Agent Frenzy (July 13).
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“The system that we play has helped me to develop myself to become the player that I’ve shown (I can be). I think that (Head Coach) Lindy (Ruff) has been really good at developing the younger players to take that next step and that’s what he was brought in to do. It’s been good so far and I’m looking forward to coming into camp next year and continue working on and growing into that championship mentality,” said Bratt of how he jumped from seven goals and 30 points in 46 games (2020-21) to 73 points in 76 games this past season.
He bested his career-high in goals by ten, his career-high in assists by 24, and in points, he finished 38 points ahead of his previous career-best. The question that the Devils are likely pondering as they decide what to offer Bratt is this: can he do it again, and again, and again? The answer to that is likely yes, but nothing is a given. Is Bratt the same player that averaged 32 points during his first four seasons – never topping 40 once? Or is he the alpha player that we just saw lead the team in every major offensive category?
“I think I took a step this year; I think it started a little bit last year and I was able to show the player that I know I can be. This was probably the first year in my career where I really took my game to the next level and I’m starting to become the player I know I can be,” said the native of Stockholm, Sweden. It’s still tough. We’re here at the end of April and I’m having my exit meetings and I’m not in the playoffs – I’m pissed off.”
“But at the same time it brings out a lot of excitement and I feel like I took my game to the next level. I did a lot of good things, but I still think that I have a lot more gears (I can get to); that gives me a lot of excitement. I can go into the summer and become even better than I was this year and hopefully help the team win even more games.”
The Devils need Bratt to replicate that performance again if they are to be serious contenders for a playoff spot, and consequently, the Stanley Cup. After watching him do it night-in and night-out for a full season, I think he can do it again. It seemed like he finally understood all of the lessons that Ruff, and John Hynes before him, were trying to instill in him.
“I just felt like things started to click, I felt like I got more comfortable with the system – the system let me play more offensively, with more speed and I think my zone entries got way better from the start of last year and started to become really good this year. I think the system also let me become good. This year I took it to the next level.”
For Ruff, night after night he would compliment Bratt on how much he meant to the roster when so many bodies were missing due to injuries. Something clicked. He took the next step. However, you’d like to phrase it. But no. 63 understood the assignment and executed it night after night.
“He’s an elite skater with elite mobility, and I feel if he can get the inside game to a higher level – like attack when he has that moment inside, that would be his greatest improvement (going forward),” said Ruff after the season of his star winger. “I think he puts fear in every defenseman he comes down on with skating alone, but once he’s inside the zone the next step would be to get more of an attack mentality after he’s created his own space.”
Bratt is still young at 23 years old, almost 24, but he has also been here in New Jersey for a while now. As have a handful of others. Gone is the time for excuses (that Devils’ Twitter loves to hate) like – we’re still a young team, we’re still growing, and so on.
“We have young guys, but they’ve been playing 3, 4, 5, or 6 seasons. We may be a young team as far as age, but we are experienced. We have to go into this off-season with the mentality that we are experienced, we are mature, that we are older and we want to make a difference,” declared Bratt.
“Consistency is the next step in our identity.”
“Playoff hockey is the hockey that you want to play. It’s almost like a different sport. Every season is different, and it’s a really hard league, but I feel like everyone in the room has to have the mentality – throughout the whole summer – to want to make a difference,” he added. “Points will come, injuries will come, but if everyone is committed to the system and one another, and more committed to winning games, then we are going to win games.
“With the core that we have and the group that we have…we can have a lot of success, and that brings a lot of excitement to me.”
“I have to come into camp in the best shape I’ve ever been in, playing my best hockey in training camp, and set the tone as a veteran player. From the first practice and the first meeting. We want to hold each other accountable; it’s going to be tough and I want to be a part of that. And make this team a winning team. I’ve been here for five years and not winning a lot of games and I want to change that.”
Devils fans are hoping that it starts to change the next time they see Bratt on the ice in Newark in September and would love to see him on the ice in April and May as well.