It’s only three games into the season, but wins in October count for the same number of points as wins in April. Now, nobody is suggesting just yet that the New Jersey Devils are primed to scoot their way up to the top third of the NHL standings, but wherever they do go this year, they’ll do it quickly.
That much is clear with this Devils’ team, one that is built on speed and skill and one that should continue to improve if the NHL continues to be vigilant on the lazy slashing calls. The Devils did a lot to change the complexion of their team in the off-season and nobody embodies that change more than Jesper Bratt, a 19-year-old rookie who was taken in the sixth round of the draft in 2016 and wasn’t good enough to play in Sweden’s top league or for their World Junior team last year. It was particularly perplexing since he had come off a season in which he was named Sweden’s top forward at the World Under-18 Championship, where Sweden finished with the silver medal.
It’s strange, really. Bratt managed to score just six goals last season playing for AIK Stockholm, which plays in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan. But after his first three games in the best league in the world, Bratt already has half that many. And after contributing a nifty assist in the Devils’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night, Bratt finds himself leading all Devils and all NHL rookies in scoring with six points.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, indicated that this was going to be the case prior to training camp. In fact, Bratt had already signed with the London Knights with the expectation that his first taste of North American hockey would be in the major junior ranks. But clearly the problem for the 1-6-0 Knights is that they’re identifying players who are actually too good. Along with Bratt, the Knights would have Matthew Tkachuk, Victor Mete and Alex Formenton on their roster if they weren’t busy playing in the NHL this season.
“It’s come fast,” Bratt acknowledged. “But I had a great summer. It’s a pretty big step, but I had a pretty bad year last year. I knew I had a lot of skill but I found it really hard to recover after games last year and play at my 100 percent level. It was something I worked on to play my best hockey every night.”
And that’s where Andy Sward comes in. You might not know who he is, but Sward is a renowned mental coach in Sweden who works with a lot of goalies and professional golfers. The one thing Sward managed to get Bratt to do was to calm down his mind. Bratt speaks to Sward before every game and Sward makes a point of saying things to Bratt that make him feel comfortable. So that results in better preparation for games and fewer surprises out on the ice. Bratt has been with Sward the past couple of months and turned to the mental coach after being cut from the World Junior squad.
“I don’t know if I should have made the team because I wasn’t that good, actually,” Bratt said in typical Swedish candor. “I maybe played to my 80 percent level every night because I didn’t find a way to play my best hockey. But that’s something that I’ve learned.”
It’s certainly showing. Bratt has displayed a remarkable amount of poise early in his first season and has shown an ability to do things at a high pace, something that’s important to the Devils, who have recognized that the pace of their game had to increase. “When you look at today’s game, there’s almost no time and space out on the ice,” said Devils coach John Hynes. “And he’s one of those guys who is able to find space or make plays when it looks like there’s no play to be made.”
Hynes is just as impressed as everyone else. He remarked after the game that Bratt never looks like a young player who is in awe of his surroundings. He has a focus level and maturity level you don’t often see in 19-year-old players, Hynes said. And in many ways, he typifies what the Devils are trying to accomplish with their new look.
“One of the things you do when you take over a team is trying to get an identity of how we want to play and be able to get players who can play that way,” Hynes said. “And Jesper is an example of that, Nico (Hischier) is an example of that and some of the guys we brought in free agency bring that. It’s nice to see we’ve been able to make some changes, but it just looks like this year that the pieces of the puzzle fit well together.”
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