It's definitely a new era in New Jersey.
A complete roster overhaul, paired with an influx of young rookies, arena upgrades, and those terrible new jerseys have made it clear to us that the New Jersey Devils are indeed new again.
A central figure in this remodel has been Nico Hischier, the 18-year-old Swiss prospect who was taken first overall in this year's draft. Hischier has made for a great story and has captured the attention of fans and media around the team. With a necessary level of hype for the first overall draft pick, comes the expectation to perform. As of yet, the offensive numbers have not come for Hischier. Through his first three NHL games (prior to the team's back-to-back games this weekend), he has one assist. It was a beauty though, so the team still has high hopes. It's certainly no crime that Hischier has taken some time to get going, and it has only been three games. With such high expectations and the shadow of Auston Matthews' red hot start last year looms over all this year's rookies and Hischier's lack of offense has some scratching their heads. This is especially true given the team's blazing start that saw them score 16 goals in their first three contests.
What is easy to spot is his obviously high hockey IQ. His play off the puck in his own end, and his passing has been extremely impressive for such a young kid, especially at a top level at such a young age. He clearly has the talent, so many around the organization seem understandably patient in allowing the future face of the franchise develop at his own pace. And why not? Expectations may be high for Hischier, but are low for the Devils as a team this year.
What may be one of Hischier's biggest contributions to the team is the way he has absorbed much of the limelight on a team comprised of many young players with plenty to prove. With Nico occupying the attention of media and fans alike, he may have unintentionally allowed the rest of the young corps to operate with much less pressure. The most obvious beneficiary of this relieved pressure has been Jesper Bratt.
Drafted 126th overall in 2016, Jesper Bratt flew under the radar on draft night after 17 points in 48 games with AIK in his native Sweden. He continued to play in Sweden last year after getting drafted, improving slightly to 22 points in 46 games. Known as a quick, creative forward, the raw talent was obvious even if the production wasn't and the Devils rolled the dice. He impressed in World Juniors in 2016 and has consistently put up points in international competition, but Bratt was certainly never in the stratosphere of first round picks from 2016 or 2017 when he arrived at Devils camp this season.
Perhaps because of the environment (the Devils feature seven players under the age of 23, and three who are 20 years old or younger), or perhaps because of the lack of pressure or expectations for the club, Jesper Bratt emerged in the preseason with an impressive five points in four games. He made the NHL roster and was featured on opening night where he scored his first career goal and collected an assist. His performance that night allowed him to see more ice time as the games have continued, and he's rewarding the team by continuing to net points left and right. After three games in the NHL, Bratt has six points and has scored on both the power play and shorthanded. His play on the forecheck and on the penalty kill really have people buzzing as well. It seems he has arrived.
Bratt has only given us a small sample size, but he seems to perfectly complement the new approach by the New Jersey Devils. With the huge influx of young players, the team has already appeared faster and more offensive than they were a year ago, and it has resulted in three decisive wins in their first three games heading in to a difficult back-to-back over the weekend against Washington and the Rangers. If Bratt can continue to contribute and fly under the radar the way he's done so often in his young career, he could stay well beyond the nine game requirement and prove himself as a long-term answer to many of the Devils issues. Speed, shooting, defense, and goal-scoring were all major concerns for New Jersey at the end of last season, and they ranked near the bottom of the league in shots per game and goals per game for the year. Bratt checks all of those boxes, and has the added benefit of establishing himself when no one was watching. While all eyes were on Nico Hischier, Bratt began making waves, first in training camp, then in preseason, now in the regular season. While everyone was still asking "Who?" when he scored his first goal, the young Swede just kept doing what he was doing. Now he has a points per game average of 2 and a .750 shooting percentage in three NHL games. Keep asking. He'll answer.
Whether this success is sustainable is up for debate, of course. He may well stay with the club beyond the nine games allowed by the team before making decisions on his contract — Bratt was also drafted by the London Knights this summer and committed to play there in August. If for any reason in the next six games the Devils feel he needs further development, they can pass him back to London. His early play may make that a very difficult decision, and a critical one to get right. What works in his favor is — again — the lowered expectations for the team. Despite the excitement and the positive energy around a team headed in the right direction, the Devils are coming off a year in which they finished last in the conference. This season is about righting the ship. Bratt can gain valuable NHL experience by staying this season, even if he doesn't end up scoring 160 points. Furthermore, his obvious rapport with fellow Swede and Devils newcomer Marcus Johansson has made for a productive offensive partnership that could give the Devils a much stronger top-six. Could he stay? So far, that's an easy "yes." But should he? The Devils brass will need to answer that question.
Personally, I think the Devils have more to gain by keeping him up all year. My expectations are still low for this team, with the hope that I can be pleasantly surprised by how they perform this year. The way the young guys have played — and especially Jesper Bratt — gives fans like me plenty of reason to stay optimistic.