A lot of people will disagree with me on this but Jeremy Bracco has a long way to go before he cracks an NHL lineup, if he can do it at all.
Wait, are you really telling me the 22-year-old who finished second in AHL scoring is bad at hockey and the Leafs should dump him for a bag of pucks?
No, of course not. But Bracco’s breakout season on the scoresheet is a classic case of perception versus reality, and when you peel away the layers, his development as a prospect becomes much more interesting and not so definite.
The Case For Bracco
The highlight reels speak for themselves: Bracco is a highly skilled forward with decent skating rhythm to his game that allows him to flow in and out of the play, creating lanes and space for his teammates. This is a great quality to have and one that arguably makes him one of the better passers in the Leafs organization. If I was in a Gladiator ring and I could choose one Leaf to complete a passing skills challenge to save my life, I would be hard pressed to pick between Bracco, Mitch Marner, or William Nylander.
The Toronto Marlies were a very mediocre team last year at 5v5. They ranked 22nd in even-strength goal differential (48%) and they were 28th in total shot differential (47%), they were not exactly a playoff team by any stretch of the imagination at evens. The big difference that pushed the Marlies into third in the division was their special teams, namely their power play led by Bracco and Chris Mueller. Bracco led the league in power play assists with 31 in 75 games, while Mueller was third in power play goals with 16 in 60 games (he was on pace to lead the league in the category before his injury).
The Marlies figured out pretty quickly that they didn’t have a team that could challenge for success in a fair fight (beating opponents line by line at even strength). Instead, Sheldon Keefe and the Marlies imposed a structure that would maximize the amount of offense the Mueller line would provide, while hoping everyone else can break even. 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.
On top of this, the Marlies knew that they could draw more penalties than they would take (as they’ve done in three of the last four years), so winning games with special teams could reasonably become a primary tactic.
None of this could’ve happened without Bracco being such a creator of offense once he has possession in the offensive zone. He was able to help the Marlies have a top-four power play (second-most goals) and his 79 points meant that he was in on 31% of the Marlies’ goals in all situations (24% at even strength).
The Jeremy Bracco show. pic.twitter.com/s8yWfvlYyu— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) May 8, 2019
Here's a quick thread of some of Bracco's assists this year. There's been 66 so far, but here's some of my favourites: pic.twitter.com/gtxnqgtYLv— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) May 16, 2019
The Case Against Bracco
Bracco is a one dimensional perimeter player who needed heavily sheltered usage and power play time in order to produce near the top of the league. The point of the AHL (if you ask the NHL franchise) is to develop players for the top league in the world. These prospect rankings are meant to determine who can provide the most value to the Leafs. In these areas, Jeremy Bracco did not have a good season. The points are a mirage that mask what his actual output would be if he were to be tasked with NHL minutes.
The argument comes down to three things. One, Bracco got extremely cushy usage and was not challenged in the areas where he was weak. Two, Bracco was a product of his centreman, who was a proven top-line goal scorer for years. And three, there is no role available to him on the Leafs in the near future where he can succeed.
Bracco got a lot more than offensive zone starts last season, he was given top-line minutes with top-line teammates without having to worry very much about playing in the defensive zone. On top of being a winger on a line that was filled with defensively strong forwards (Mueller, Brooks, Moore, Carcone, Timashov), I noticed midway through the season that Bracco was getting off the ice once the puck had left the offensive zone and would skate the length of the ice (the bench was on the far side) to get off and be replaced by a fresh teammate to go play defense with his linemates.
Throughout the season, when Keefe gave his post-game interviews, he was very specific in calling out positives in Bracco’s offensive game, and not in other areas of the ice, even when directly asked about them. Keefe is a very smart man and I trust his hockey opinion to a very high degree, he doesn’t just say things to say them. The fact that he only focused on that one area of Bracco’s game meant something.
I don’t think this is a big scandal or anything, the Marlies were exploiting the best out of Bracco as they could and couldn’t afford to live with his defensive drawbacks. They were fully in their right to do so and they pulled it off to great success. The problem here is that it shows Bracco to be a drag defensively and no one is making a living in the NHL unless they can be trusted in their own zone. Skaters like Seth Griffith, Cory Conacher, Peter Holland, and TJ Brennan don’t stick in the league if they can’t play on both sides of the ice, points be damned.
It cannot go understated how much value Chris Mueller provided Bracco over the course of the season. As a player who is one of the best in the league in front of the net, as a shooter, and in his own zone, Mueller did a lot of the heavy lifting for his line at even strength and on the power play. Of the 33 goals Mueller scored last year, Bracco assisted on 20 of them. Mueller also shot a career high 22%. One can say that Bracco raised Mueller’s game just as much as Mueller raised Bracco’s game, and they would be correct. The big difference here is Bracco has not shown on his own that he is as good defensively as Mueller made him out to be.
Haydn Fleury toe-drags around Bracco, before beating Kaskisuo five-hole.— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) May 18, 2019
Carcone turned a high-danger scoring chances into a horrible turnover just before this clip pic.twitter.com/CnH7xZUP20
Same goes for Timashov, I thought he had a great season as a transitional playmaker. His defensive game grew to a really nice level whereby he was on the penalty kill in spurts and on the ice late in games defending leads. His versatility on the left side of the ice in the offensive zone was a very good compliment to Bracco, and allowed that trio to put up a lot of points. They both elevated each other, but Timashov visibly did a lot more work deep in his own end and along the boards to push the puck forward in order to get the play back in the offensive zone where Bracco is gifted.
Bracco finished the season second in the AHL in points, but half of his 79 points were on the power play. Pierre Engvall, Michael Carcone, and Trevor Moore were all ahead of Bracco and Mueller in even strength goal rates. Relative to the league, Carter Verhaeghe (23) led the league in scoring with 82 points in 76 games. He also led the league in even-strength points with 51 whereas Bracco dropped from second to 11th in league scoring. This is why there’s a good chance Verhaeghe makes the NHL whereas Bracco isn’t on the radar of anyone important.
There is a perception that Bracco had a dominant season in the AHL. He did in one specific area of the game and was used in such a way that he had more chances to put up more points.
Next season Mueller will be in Syracuse, so Bracco will have to see what he can do with Adam Brooks or another Leafs depth forward to his left. I hope this translates into more time defensively because we really didn’t see any of it last year. I want Bracco to succeed but the harsh reality of his season is that he’s a one dimensional player that needs to add more tools in his belt before he’s ready for NHL duty.
That brings us to where Bracco fits into an NHL roster. People have speculated online that Bracco can play on a sheltered fourth line and get second unit power play time. As nice as that would be for Bracco, it seems like a lot of effort to take away offensive zone starts from objectively more skilled players for a fringe player who would only play for 8-10 minutes. Same with the power play. Is the second unit really important enough to bring in a specialist? An ideal second unit would only play the final 30 seconds of a typical power play anyway. I just don’t see it.
At the moment, he’s a lightweight winger who relies on speed and who needs a net-front sniper to finish for him. He shoots at a very low rate and shows signs of inability to gain the zone against tougher AHL competition. A rebuilding team with a thin roster might be able to slot him in on a top line with a veteran centre and get away with it, but the Kings already tried that with Brendan Leipsic, and they didn’t issue him a qualifying offer.
Could Bracco make the NHL on a team that isn’t quite as deep at forward, especially on the right wing? In a year or two? Sure. But that future is not happening in Toronto with William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Mitch Marner* under contract for at least the next three seasons.
Bracco is on the final year of his entry-level contract and will need waivers starting in 2020-21. I think there was a time for the Leafs to trade him to a situation where he could be more useful, but perhaps that time has passed. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep up the same point production and end up being a chip at the trade deadline. That’s where I see his value to be in the NHL on the Leafs.
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.
Trevor Moore is already on the team and players like Pierre Engvall and Mason Marchment could be on their way as well. All three are strong two-way players who can do things to help their team with and without the puck and can be a factor on the ice even when they’re not on a personal run. I’m not sure the same can be said for Bracco. That’s where my hangup is and that’s why I ranked him 22nd on my list.
He’s gotten this far with his talent, he now needs to put in the effort to add more elements to his game or he’s going to be left behind.
From the Masthead
Bracco has undoubtedly been a great offensive player in the AHL. He is a great passer, helps a lot on the PP, and can rack up points as he showed last year. My thing is, I hear how he was pretty heavily sheltered and somewhat the product of his linemates… and that’s in the AHL. I ranked him 19th because I am still not convinced that his skills will play in the NHL, or that what makes him special is special enough to overcome his weaknesses in the NHL level. His talent is enough for me to keep him in my rankings but I want to hear how he’s either taken a big step skill wise or shored up his weaknesses in a big way this year for me to believe he’ll ever be an NHL regular.
This is a bit of personal voodoo, so take it for what it’s worth: something about Jeremy Bracco just screams AAAA star to me. He’s clearly a highly productive, top-end PP player in the AHL. He’s a very gifted passer. He’s agile. If you gave him the perfect NHL opportunity, I think he’d produce at least respectably. It’s just that I’m not sure he’s going to get that opportunity, especially in Toronto. He reminds me of so many of these guys I’ve seen before: small, bad defensively, and not quite as versatile as I’d like. I still put him above every other forward who hasn’t made the NHL yet except one, because his talent and production are hard to deny, and if he does break through he could put up enough points to make me look really silly. I just have a feeling about him.
He wears ugly hats so I lowered him by 7 positions.
I mean, everyone wants a 22-year-old winger who can’t score goals and refuses to play defense.
Does Jeremy Bracco play 100 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs?