TORONTO – There is a tendency to look at a someone like Jesper Bratt and wonder how he slipped through the cracks.
What did everyone miss?
It’s literally been decades since we’ve seen a player get selected in the sixth round of the entry draft one year and make his NHL debut the next – at least until the 19-year-old winger stormed on the scene with the New Jersey Devils these last few weeks.
“He kind of came out of nowhere in camp,” teammate Kyle Palmieri said Wednesday. “Not many guys or media really knew who he was.”
While we might easily point to Bratt’s size (five foot 10, 175 pounds) or his circumstances (playing in Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league) as reasons for why he was previously overlooked, the teenager points at himself.
He readily admits that he struggled with focus and preparation in the past. He would get anxious and overthink things. There was very little consistency in his play.
“Last year was a pretty tough year for me,” Bratt said in an interview. “It was tough for me to be confident on the ice and I was always nervous before games. So I never performed at my highest level. I didn’t know how to make myself ready for the next day and that’s something that I worked on a lot this year to play on my highest level every night.”
The big breakthrough came before he arrived at Devils development camp this summer and really started turning heads inside the organization.
Bratt credits the decision to start working with mental coach Andy Swärd as the moment where his potential was truly unlocked. Swärd’s client list includes athletes in various sports, including a handful of Swedish Hockey League goalies, and his message immediately resonated with a player who had scored just 14 goals in 94 games for AIK over two seasons.
“He makes me feel very comfortable,” said Bratt. “He’s a very well-known guy in Sweden. He’s a great guy and he’s one of the biggest reasons I’m standing here.”
The timing couldn’t have been any better. The sessions helped propel Bratt to a big summer – Toronto Maple Leafs winger William Nylander says he turned heads during informal skates in Stockholm – and his progress was evident to Devils general manager Ray Shero the moment he got back on North American soil.
Shero attended the under-20 Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich., with high hopes for 2017 second-rounder Jesper Boqvist and ended up being blown away by Bratt instead. By the end of a rookie tournament in Buffalo a month later, he was predicting to Devils coach John Hynes that Bratt would win a job with the team.
The one thing he didn’t have to overcome was any negative pre-conceived notions as the 162nd-overall draft pick because the Devils feel they need to “earn respect back in the league,” according to Shero.
“I didn’t care if he was 19 or 29 or 39,” said Shero. “If you’re going to move the dial you’re going to be here. You have to be open-minded.”
“We came into this year saying that the last couple years weren’t good enough,” added Hynes. “It didn’t matter who you were – older guy, younger guy, high draft, low draft, free agent, tryout player – we’re going to play the best guys. We wanted guys to come in here and help us turn this thing around.”
The biggest thing that resonated about Bratt’s performance throughout training camp is how consistent he was. Even as the pace and stakes increased, he continued to make smart decisions with the puck while playing in every possible situation.
When he made the opening-night roster and suited up for Saturday’s opener against Colorado, he became the lowest-drafted teenager to play in the NHL since 1995-96 – when Roman Volpat (taken 172nd in 1994) and Richard Zednik (taken 249 in 1994) both did it.
Bratt’s parents, Conny and Karin, made the trip over from Sweden and saw him score his first career goal against Jonathan Bernier. His phone exploded with messages from friends when he followed that up with two goals and an assist in Buffalo on Monday afternoon.
Bratt continues to check in with Swärd daily and speaks to him on FaceTime before every game. Those conversations help keep him in a healthy frame of mind.
“We encourage that,” said Shero.
He’s eligible to be sent to either the American Hockey League or OHL’s London Knights this season, but he’ll be given every opportunity to stay with the Devils before any decisions are made.
It is quite a story.
Keep in mind that New Jersey drafted seven players before calling Bratt to the stage 16 months ago and he’s the first of that group to actually play for the Devils. Heck, we’re talking about a guy who was cut from Sweden’s world junior team last year.
“I thought a lot during the year that I was maybe going to make the team,” said Bratt. “So I think that was probably a little bit of a down period in my last year. My game started to be really pretty bad. I had a lot of ups and downs, so that is something that I get stronger about today.
“I think it was both good and bad for me to have that little downturn.”
Just look at him now.