“I’m pencilling him in on Matthews’ wing next year.”
Who said that last summer about Jeremy Bracco? A lot of people, actually, and even more thought it, or if they didn’t have their pencils out, they could at least imagine it as possible. It wasn’t a radical thought. But the opposite take — that Bracco has one trick, and even if he is really good at it, it isn’t enough — wasn’t radical either. There were a lot of people who agreed with both takes to some varying degree of strength.
That was then, and now, after a year where the only direction Jeremy Bracco took a step was right off the Marlies, everyone has flipped the pencil around to erase their hopes for this once-valued prospect. Is that reasonable? Or is there (at least) two sides to the Bracco story again this year?
Bracco only received eight votes, and I’m sort of surprised by that, but a polarizing argument can drive people to more extreme views. And I’m also not sure the two farthest poles aren’t more reasonable this year than last. It’s not “top line in the NHL” vs “AHL star for life” it’s more like “the next Timashov” vs “career in crisis”.
Votes - Jeremy Bracco
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The simple average of his votes is 19, but when you weight the unranked votes, it puts him at 21.33, or a scrap higher than Mac Hollowell yesterday. The jump from the draft picks and Jesper Lindgren to Hollowell and Bracco is the first really noticeable gap. I ranked him at 21 after I promoted some younger players up over him, which is not a ringing endorsement of his future potential. I ranked him 15th last year, not the lowest ranking he got, but also not a sign of much confidence in him. I never bought in on the “Matthews’ wing” theory.
Hear me out... what if Jeremy Bracco had been a defenceman? Imagine a defender, small — sure — but a decent skater who reads the ice extremely well and makes a pass like no one else at his level and very few at one level up. Imagine he just gets the power play the way Mitch Marner does. Imagine he’s a little disinterested in actual defending, and you’d be yelling: Is he a righty!!!!
I feel like I just described Mike Koster.
Jeremy Bracco has most of the skills that make up a modern defence prospect you can drool over, and not much else. But he’s a forward, so there’s more missing than just defensive skills. Even so, he succeeds very well in the AHL, or he did until this year.
One Bad Season
Stats can’t really tell the whole story of the Marlies this year. They wouldn’t have been in the playoffs because they’d played like a last-place team most of the season. Near the end, they put on a bit of a push, but it was a weak one.
There’s no single root cause, but the promotion of Sheldon Keefe led to chaos on the team when the bench was left to the assistant coaches for weeks while the almost totally inexperienced Greg Moore was taught the Leafs systems before he took over. Then things got really bad.
Moore has talked publicly since about his learning curve and the experience of trying to bring his USHL-honed coaching skills to a team where he connected better with the first- and second-year pros than he did the veterans. Trouble is almost no one on the Marlies was that green. Even Bracco was in his third year, and what a year, it was.
He went from second in the AHL in points (behind Carter Verhaeghe) in 2018-2019, to watching Verhaeghe play 52 NHL games for the Lightning while Bracco finished 104th in AHL points and played only 44 games.
Bracco has so few games played because he left the team in early February for “personal reasons” and returned a month later. He never played another game before the season was cancelled, but at the time he left the team, he’d played in every one.
I’m going to quote my story from early February on Bracco’s season, which we didn’t realize at the time was over:
He’s obviously a key part of the team, or he wouldn’t be playing every game, something only the top forwards do in the AHL, with its three-in-three weekends. And yet superficially, his points look like his rookie season when he was essentially benched in the playoffs as the team won the championship.
In 17-18, as he turned 20, he had six goals and 26 assists in 50 games. This year he has four goals and 30 assists in 44 games. No one would even know his name if he hadn’t produced 22 goals and 57 assists last season in 75 games. Production gets attention, and lack of it gets rumours.
Digging a little deeper, about as deep as you can get in the AHL, it becomes clear that Bracco’s fluctuating production is almost entirely his own goal-scoring, and he’s not very good at that.
Jeremy Bracco’s Marlies Career
To set your level of understanding, you must forget everything you think is normal about shooting % in the NHL. A secondary forward with a 6.9 would be seen to be in a bit of a slump in the NHL, but not horribly so. In the AHL, that’s not just a slump, that’s time for hard questions about talent and drive. That 17% that Bracco used to get the fabled point per game last season is a standard AHL top-line forward’s normal shooting level.
This season, for example, Seth Griffith (remember him?) has a shooting percentage of 26%, and he’s never been below 13% on a season. His career number is 17.3%. The Marlies grinder+ player, Tanner MacMaster is shooting 24%, and Kenny Agostino, the player closest to a point per game this year, is shooting 23%. Meanwhile, Bracco’s is lower than four of the defencemen.
But making matters worse for him, his shooting rate has dried up too, and he’s got fewer total shots than Adam Brooks has in only 25 games played. And Brooks is seen as a bit too pass-first. Timothy Liljegren shoots more than Bracco, and in fact Liljegren can essentially take over Bracco’s role on the power play, which is where he is most effective.
So if he shoots as often as a defenceman, as bad as a defenceman and makes his money off of setting up his linemates, you have to ask why you don’t just actually want a defenceman like Liljegren instead of Bracco. If you look at the way the Leafs play these days, you’d ask that twice.
It’s hard to judge what was up with Bracco this year because we don’t know what was up, and I’ve got no patience for gossip. He was the subject of many trade rumours, but Dubas has never seemed to be a sell-low kind of guy unless a player really wants out. We do know that Bracco was not asked to be on the “taxi squad” for the coming playoffs, and that he’s had an exit interview with the rest of the Marlies where they are given a program of offseason work and goals.
Watching him became a chore, though, a frustrating and aggravating chore because his gifts are real, and fairly rare, and he seems to have done pretty much nothing to build a foundation that will allow him to use those gifts. Mitch Marner is standing right there! The exact role model he needs to base a more complete game on. And yet, he was less inclined to do anything at all off the power play this season, and the Marlies power play was horrible.
Even his fans started to hate-watch him.
One night while the blog-team was watching Bracco and the Marlies be bad together, I jokingly called him the Vadim Shipachyov of North American hockey. But maybe that’s not even a joke. Shipachyov became a symbol of everything teams do wrong with Russian players when he arrived in Vegas as a free agent signing for a lot of money — way, way too much money — and then just failed at everything while being given less than no help to achieve anything.
He went back to the KHL and has won some points titles since, including this season. The blame fell so squarely on Vegas when he washed out that it seems like no one really had time to hear that he was utterly inept at anything but making the pass to a goal scorer. He makes no effort in his own end, but he sees the game offensively very well, and 387 of his 570 KHL points are assists.
In a league like the KHL that relies a lot less on passes from defencemen to start offensive cycles, and where “can’t be arsed defensively” is just how some guys are, he’s a star, undiminished at 33. And Bracco, 10 years younger, looks like a bust to so many of us used to the work ethic and grind mentality of the NHL. Particularly as the NHL looks to defenders like Liljegren to be the pass-master.
From Hardev last year on Bracco’s big year in 2018-2019:
What the Marlies did was give Bracco heavy offensive zone starts while playing him with a proven net-front goal-scorer and a winger who could be responsible in his own end to transition play into the offensive zone.
Shipachyov set Dmitrij Jaskin up for 31 goals this year, something Jaskin hasn’t done since one year in the Q back in the day. If you’re a one-trick pony, and your trick relies on another guy scoring the goals, you better be able to turn a defensive grinder who couldn’t get an NHL job into a scoring phenom. It’s either that or play without the puck like you’re paid to.
Other People’s Opinions
Brigstew: I know he has all kinds of talent. I know he is a brilliant passer. I know he can QB a top powerplay unit. I know all of that. But he took a step back this season when he should have been dominating the AHL and pressuring the Leafs to find a spot for him in the NHL. Some of that might be bad luck, but he’s 23 now and running out of time to prove he can make it in the NHL rather than just blending into the AHL. He also has glaring weaknesses that seem to completely balance out the talents he has. I’m not buying it anymore, so I left him off my rankings even if he’s more skilled than, say, Kristians Rubins. If he wants to make me look stupid a year from now I’ll gladly welcome the dunce cap.
Arvind: I’m not really a believer in Jeremy Bracco in a macro sense. His offensive game is clearly good, but it’s probably not good enough to justify giving him high-end linemates and power play time. He’s an amazing, genuinely all-world passer, but not much of a shot generator, and I don’t have great confidence he’ll move the puck with his feet at the NHL level. His defensive game is meh or poor, depending on who you ask, and as such, he’s unlikely to impress in spot duty on lower end lines without being sheltered to some degree — sheltering you’d get more mileage out of if you used it for say, Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner. That said, it’s slim pickings at this point in the list. I think there are situations in the NHL where Bracco could succeed. Are they on good teams? Probably not. But could he run a power play and play 3rd line minutes for some forgettable team like the Ducks? It’s possible. That’s a lot more than many other people on this list. If you’re entirely upside-focused, I can see punting him off the list. He’s 23 and not made the NHL. The list of forwards who fall into that bucket and become someone of note is quite small. But I tend to want to reward proximity and the ability to survive in the NHL, even at a low level. Bracco is closer to doing that than a large part of the Leafs weak pipeline.
Fulemin: I don’t blame anyone who’s given up on Jeremy Bracco by this point. I think he still has a decent chance to play NHL games, better than plenty of the bottom ten on the list. I would be surprised if those games were in Toronto, but there are teams down in the standings and up in waiver priority that could at least audition Bracco’s playmaking skills. That said, the Leafs called up everybody and their dog for a game or two this season and Bracco didn’t even get that. I don’t think the organization has seen what it needs to see from him, and barring an absolutely dynamite training camp, I don’t think he has much chance left to fix the Leafs’ perception.
Seldo: Man, I was excited for Bracco. He was one of the highlights of the 2017 Memorial Cup, constantly giving us highlight reel goals. I think I carried that image of him in my mind for every Top 25 since then, as I usually ranked him high before leaving him off my list entirely this year. I did that because the Marlies essentially dropped him from their roster. I don’t know the circumstances around the move, but if they think they can do well without him - and not even try to trade him - his value has cratered and that gets you no vote from me.
Kevin: Bracco’s last game was on February 1st, and he was then away from the Marlies for personal reasons. Since I have no idea what happened, I have given him the benefit of the doubt in these rankings, and have assumed that this was a legitimate absence that did not change his standing in the organization. Bracco finished second in the AHL in scoring for the 2018-2019 season. There is absolutely no denying that he’s a high-end AHL scorer, and while he hasn’t played an NHL game, he did earn a courtesy call-up back in December. He’s got a higher floor than most of the players on the bottom-half of this ranking, as it’s easy to imagine him leading the Marlies in scoring next season, earning another call-up, and actually getting a chance to prove himself in some NHL games. There’s also far more upside here than most of the players on the bottom-half of this ranking, as he’s an A+ passer in any league this world has to offer. Players like Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Egor Korshkov, and Dmytro Timashov are all ‘96 born forwards who made their NHL debut this past season. Trevor Moore is a ‘95 born forward who made his debut the season before. Despite the prospect fatigue that’s in play here, there’s still time for the ‘97 born Bracco, and there are simply not 25 players in this organization under the age of 25 who are ahead of him.
Hardev: I said the following quote a little less than 10 months ago when I wrote The Case Against Jeremy Bracco, “Long story short, I like Bracco as a player, but there were too many red flags surrounding his all-around game and his willingness to do different things on the ice that I’m not sure if he’s going to be able to make a jump forward or start to get passed over by players who can legitimately play a role that is required on the Leafs.” Turns out, Bracco got passed over by players who could play a role for the Leafs. He got passed over by players who are tenacious, versatile, and dependable, who will be a positive impact on possession and scoring in the NHL. He put the puck in the net one out of three years, but Bracco lacks the other aspects required to play in the NHL, I didn’t even see any effort to try and improve on those qualities to his game, it looked like he just banked on scoring 74 points again. Because of all that, and the fact that his outright trade value is likely less than a fifth round pick, I saw no reason to believe he has value to the Leafs, on or off the ice. That may be harsh to say, but Bracco’s been in the AHL for three seasons now and he has yet to grow out of playing like a junior player. Brooks, Marchment, Engvall, Liljegren, Moore, Timashov, Gauthier all took steps to work harder all the time because they weren’t going to make the NHL on their skill (or in Gauthier’s case, size) alone. They are players who show commitment and fight for possession everywhere on the ice. Players who don’t jump off the ice first as the play transitions back into the Marlies zone even though they’re the farthest from the bench. They all gave the Leafs a reason to keep them off waivers and to give them a shot in the NHL, whether they took it or not was up to them. That time is up for Bracco, a decision needs to be made now.
Overreaction or Necessary Corrective
Is this reaction to Bracco’s bad year reasonable, or has the pendulum swung too far to compensate? Why not both, as the saying goes. The original hype-train for Bracco came from tunnel-vision focus on his best qualities. The total derailment view needs some similar tunnel-vision on his flaws. The first view needed to be tempered, and it is entirely possible that tempering has just been taken a bit too far.
There’s a lot of platitudes out there about turning adversity into opportunities, and one of the purposes of sports is to watch those clichés get acted out for our entertainment. Bracco really does have an opportunity to come back next year and work to bring his game up to the highest level he can achieve.
If he does that, he might end up ten years from now with a couple of Gagarin Cups and a fanbase in Russia. He might never make the NHL — most players drafted in the 60s don’t. But Bracco seems to be at a much more dangerous turning point in his career. If he’s walking the same path that led Kerby Rychel to one assist in 13 games on two teams that fired him, with a third not even letting him progress out of camp, that would be very sad.
The best outcome for Bracco is if he finds that top level inside himself and discovers where it can take him.
Your turn. Is this ranking an overreaction or the corrective that was needed?
Jeremy Bracco ranked 21 is....
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