The excitement surrounding Nico Hischier's NHL debut on Saturday is entirely justified, given that the Devils have never had the No. 1 pick in the draft, and the 18-year-old center's arrival marks a new era for the franchise.
New Jersey has been eagerly awaiting the chance to watch Hischier in action since June. For the other teenager suiting up in the opener, 19-year-old left wing Jesper Bratt, the situation is different.
"I think after the last preseason game, I had a pretty good preseason, and that was the moment I thought I could make the roster," Bratt said. "Of course, you want to make the team when you come here. That's why you come for training camp. Before I went to the rookie tournament and training camp, I wanted to learn a lot, and get good experience. Right now, I'm standing here, I've made the team, and it's been the best month of hockey of my entire life, and hopefully I can stay here for a long time."
Bratt was the Devils' sixth-round draft choice in 2016, which means that his expectations were justified: come to camp, get a taste of playing alongside NHL talent, and build from there in years to come. Last season, only one player from the tail end of the draft saw NHL action: Columbus defenseman Markus Nutivaara, a seventh-rounder. The difference is that Nutivaara was 22 at the time of his debut.
As far as similar paths to the NHL go, for prospects who entered camp without big expectations of making the roster, but playing their way onto the team with a strong camp, Devils coach John Hynes thought of Olli Maata and Conor Sheary in Pittsburgh. The difference is that Maata was a first-round pick, and while Sheary was undrafted, he had four years of college hockey and a full season in the AHL before he got to Pittsburgh.
The closest recent comparable to Bratt's story might be Ondrej Palat, a seventh-round pick in 2011 who got to the NHL late in the 2012-13 season and has been a quality winger for Tampa Bay ever since. Even Palat's journey is slightly different, though, as he had 117 games in the AHL before getting to the Lightning. When Bratt steps on the ice with the Devils, it will be his first hockey that counts in North America - albeit not his first professional hockey.
"I played two years pro in Sweden, so I played with some older guys, and that was a good thing for me, to be around older guys," Bratt said. "I feel pretty comfortable here. All the guys have been great to me. They've made me feel really at home in the locker room and they've been very nice to me. I'm very thankful for having them here by my side. It's been great."
On the ice, Bratt skated in practice on Wednesday with Adam Henrique and Jimmy Hayes at his side, the other winger being another player who made the Devils' roster with a strong preseason. Hayes, entering his seventh NHL season, has been impressed by what he's seen from his young teammate.
"He's a kid that's got a lot of high-end speed and high-end skill," Hayes said. "The guys are joking around and calling him Gretzky. He's been very impressive. It's a great feat for him to be able to come in and crack an opening night NHL lineup."
The key now for Bratt is to make sure he sticks around by continuing to be the self-described "hard-working, skilled guy" that made the team in the first place. It's not just those attributes, though, that got Bratt onto the roster. Another is a big reason to expect him to stick: not just work, not just skill, but the relentless pursuit of high standards day in and day out.
"Jesper was one of those guys that you saw at development camp, rookie camp, who really made a statement - he was a very good player, and his game never tailed off," Hynes said. 'He just continued to be consistent and played his game, and the thing we've liked about it is, he didn't come in here and take a back seat. He wanted to play in key situations, and in the games, he didn't get rattled by it. He wants to be on the ice, he wants to be in the most competitive situations in the game. It's nice to see a younger player that has that type of mentality, but also has the ability to - everyone's competitive here, but to translate it into very consistent efforts and productivity has been nice to see.