The New Jersey Devils hot preseason continued to roll on last night with a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. They moved to 4-0-0 in exhibition games with two contests to go until the regular season begins on Oct. 15. While the wins are nice, it’s not as if they matter much during the preseason. But there are still notable things to take away, especially with a roster as young as one the Devils have.
Dawson Mercer and Alex Holtz continue to make their cases for NHL roster spots, and Mackenzie Blackwood is finding a groove after having offseason surgery on his heel. Let’s go over their performances and more from last night’s win as the Devils get closer to concluding the preseason and finalizing their roster.
Mercer & Holtz Still Showing They Belong
Mercer and Holtz are two of the Devils’ top three prospects, and they’ve been showing why that’s the case during the preseason. Last night was no different, as Holtz scored a power play goal, thanks to Mercer setting up a juicy rebound after driving the net and making a slick toe drag on Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek.
Neither Mercer and Holtz were particularly great at five-on-five — Mercer had a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 46.4 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 44.3 percent, while Holtz had a CF% of 48 percent and xG% of 44.8 percent. Still, they had positive moments, specifically Mercer early on the first period.
One of the things that stands out about Mercer is his hockey IQ. About midway through the first period, he made one of those plays that’ll catch your eye but won’t make the box score. The Capitals had possession and were looking to break out of the defensive zone. But Mercer anticipated the pass and intercepted it, preventing the Capitals from getting the rush going. He was able to maintain possession and kept the Devils’ attack moving in the offensive zone. Those are the kind of plays that’ll get the coaching staff to notice you, and he’s done that a lot in the three preseason games he’s played.
Of the three preseason games Holtz has played, last night was his quietest. But he still seems to be in a prime position to make the Devils’ opening night roster. He’ll probably have to be a little more active in the team’s two remaining preseason games (assuming he plays in both) to lock up his spot. But his offensive game, specifically his shot, gives the Devils a little extra firepower in their top six that they could use.
Kuokkanen Quietly Doing His Thing
Janne Kuokkanen is not Nico Hischier. He’s not Jack Hughes. Heck, he’s not Jesper Bratt. Yet, he’s still one of the team’s best offensive creators; he just doesn’t have the flash of the Devils’ top players. Kuokkanen finished with two assists last night, including a pretty pass to Mercer that led to Holtz’s power play goal:
Kuokkanen was one of the Devils’ top players at five-on-five last night, finishing with a CF% of 78.5 percent and xG% of 50.5 percent. He’s still not shooting the puck enough — he had no shots on goal and only one shot attempt at five-on-five. With that said, that’s not his bread and butter. He’s never going to be a 20-25 goal-scorer, but he can set up teammates and help them become 20-25 goal-scorers. He’ll likely settle in as a third-line winger who gets power play time. But don’t rule him out playing top-six minutes because of his playmaking ability.
Blackwood Settling In
The Devils signed Jonathan Bernier this offseason to help ease Blackwood’s workload. But make no mistake about it, if the Devils are going to make some noise in the Metropolitan Division, Blackwood will have to be at the top of his game. So far, he’s played well in limited preseason action.
Blackwood stopped 15 of 16 shots he faced against the New York Islanders on Saturday in Bridgeport, Connecticut, despite playing only one period. Advanced stats weren’t available for that game since it took place in an AHL arena. But they were last night since the Devils played at the Prudential Center. Blackwood stopped all six high-danger shots he faced and again stopped 15 of 16 shots for the game, this time in two periods of play. Through almost 60 minutes of preseason action, his save percentage (SV%) sits at .938.
There is looming uncertainty surrounding Blackwood because he’s yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He hasn’t ruled out getting it, so time will tell what happens there. Until then, if he can stay healthy, he’s positioning himself to start the season strong. He’ll likely play a full game in one of the Devils’ two remaining preseason contests as a final tune-up. So he should be in position to be their starter on opening night.
Zacha Thrives Back at Left Wing
Pavel Zacha started at center in his preseason debut on Friday evening, but it did not go well. Yesterday, he found himself back at left wing on a line with Hischier and Bratt, two players he had success with during the 2020-21 season. While it was only a preseason game, they still seemed to have some good chemistry as a unit.
Zacha, Hischier and Bratt didn’t score at five-on-five last night. But the Devils were controlling play and had an xG% of 68 percent with them on the ice. Zacha looked particularly comfortable at left wing, too, as he finished with a CF% of 64.7 percent and xG% of 65.2 percent. He led the team with four shots on goal at five-on-five (five SOG at all strengths) and tallied a power play goal in the third period, his second in as many games.
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With Mercer looking like a good bet to make the Devils as their third-line center, there’s no question Zacha belongs at left wing. He appears more comfortable at the position and is a better fit on the wing because of his shooting ability. And even if Mercer begins the season in Utica with the Comets (AHL), Zacha should likely remain at left wing. The Devils would be better off letting Jesper Boqvist get a run at center and leaving Zacha on the wing because they need to get the most out of Zacha as a scorer, and that won’t happen with him playing down the middle.
Focus on Devils Roster Becoming Clearer
Even though they won’t make any more cuts until after their final preseason game on Thursday, things are certainly coming together for the Devils. The makeup of what their opening night roster will look like is taking shape, but there are still a few things to settle. Can Mercer and Holtz solidify their spots? Will Zacha continue getting a shot on the wing, and will he continue to thrive there? Those and whatever questions remain should get their answers by Thursday night.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017