How Jesper Bratt Is Becoming a Star Speed Merchant

It’s fair to say the 14-18-5 New Jersey Devils’ rebuild is coming along slowly but surely. Though future cornerstones Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer and Ty Smith have offered glimpses of legitimate star upside, they’ve struggled to deliver the goods night in and night out. That’s common for prospects.

As such, a more experienced 23-year-old becoming the team’s offensive catalyst shouldn’t raise many eyebrows. However, few would have picked Jesper Bratt (32 points in 34 games) as the man to lead the charge.

In his fifth pro season, the former sixth-round pick is making a mockery of scouting reports by shattering his previous scoring rates and pacing a swift, dynamic and undeniably fun Devils club. While the higher-pedigree pieces try to find a measure of consistency, Bratt is building upon a solid 2020-21 campaign to deploy a ceaseless blitz on the opposition. In fact, he plays at such a furious pace that he’s emerging as one of the league’s very finest speed demons.

For Bratt, there’s no such thing as playing too fast. He’s most comfortable at top gear and most vulnerable in trench warfare.

When he’s a stationary target, his 5’10”, 175-pound frame betrays him and he panics, throwing Hail Mary passes into the belly of the beast. When he finds some open ice, he’s among the most effective transition forwards in the league:

Look at how much room he creates for himself and his teammates. His pace is almost overwhelming. Defenders are pushed back and the Devils are granted quality touches thanks to their clean zone entries. Once they’re on the attack, Bratt then ramps up his activity level, winning races to pucks and extending New Jersey’s waves of attack.

Fortunately, the Swede isn’t merely a straight-line Michael Grabner-style burner. With his quick hands, deception and lateral agility, Bratt is a terrifying one-on-one cover—not because he’ll dangle through an entire team (although he is capable of that every now and then) but because he can generate enough space or buy enough time to turn a routine possession into a dangerous opportunity.

He’s particularly fond of opening up his hips and “surfing” to shake loose from defenders, but he’s just an elusive forward overall:

That separation ability is essential to a club that can occasionally run short on ideas. The numbers drive this home, as Bratt leads the Devils’ forward corps in high-danger chance, expected goal and actual goal rate. Moreover, he ranks second among all NHL forwards in HDCF60 and first in xGF60 (minimum 400 minutes played at 5-on-5).

Regardless of his linemates, few five-man units are as dominant as Bratt’s.

Obviously, converting on those opportunities is the ultimate goal. That’s where the 23-year-old’s natural puck skills enter the picture. Though he may not be as effortless a playmaker as Hughes, he still fares well at connecting with teammates in prime real estate.

Pace is once again the engine behind his success. He thrives as a rapid-fire passer rather than a surgical quarterback. At his best, the puck is on his stick, off his stick and suddenly in the opposition’s slot:

Of course, it would be a waste for Bratt himself not to capitalize on his wheels too. He cleverly picks his spots, alternating between a one-man breakout and a home run threat. When he does manage to get behind the defense, he displays a knack for keeping goaltenders guessing with an array of close-quarters moves.

He can whistle pucks by you, sneak them through you or deke you out of your jockstrap:

That’s the kernel of Bratt’s game, really: a marriage of unpredictability and tempo. Opponents are never quite sure what his next move is, and they aren’t granted time to catch up once he’s flown by them.

All told, his pure speed, shiftiness, playmaking and finish have translated to the seventh-highest scoring rate per 60 minutes among forwards. He isn’t riding a wacky shooting percentage either. He’s simply learned how to deploy his pace more effectively, pinning defenders on their heels and taking advantage of the ensuing leeway to link up with teammates or manufacture Grade A chances.

Consider this sequence against the Philadelphia Flyers:

His speed forces Travis Sanheim to pivot, his quick stop sends Philly’s blueliner tumbling to the ice, he sends a gorgeous saucer pass to Hischier through the heart of the defense and then caps the play off with a top-shelf snipe. And this unfolds in the blink of an eye.

Beyond his own contributions, Bratt has also emerged as a wonderful foil for 2019 first overall pick Hughes. Hughes’ most productive stretch this season has come alongside Bratt because they play fast, they buzz around the puck and they create countless chances for the Devils (3.81 xGF60). He’s never starved for touches, whereas the attention he commands frees up Bratt to initiate dash after dash up the ice. They have the makings of a lethal long-term duo.

New Jersey hasn’t quite turned the corner yet, but through sheer velocity, Bratt is doing his part to accelerate its progress.

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