After arguably the shortest offseason in NHL history, hockey is back. The New Jersey Devils will travel to Buffalo, New York, to partake in the round-robin Prospects Challenge with the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. The Devils will play two games, with the first against the Sabres tonight at 7 PM and the second on Sunday at 1 PM versus the Bruins. Many of the Devils’ top prospects will be in attendance, so there’ll be plenty to keep an eye on.
Among the Devils’ up-and-comers participating in the Prospects Challenge are Dawson Mercer, Alexander Holtz and Nolan Foote, to name a few. They’ll be three of many players vying for NHL gigs when training camp opens less than a week from now. Here’s what you should be watching from them and some other prospects over their two games.
There’s been a lot of hype for Mercer since the Devils drafted him with the 18th overall pick at the 2020 Draft. He finished the shortened 2020-21 QMJHL season with 36 points in 23 regular-season games and added 17 points in nine playoff games. While those numbers may catch your eye, the QMJHL is a defense-optional league, so expectations need to be kept in check.
Still, that doesn’t mean Mercer can’t have a strong showing at the Prospects Challenge. He has an underrated shot, is a high-end stickhandler, and is defensively responsible. He can play both right wing and center, so it’ll be interesting to see where Kevin Dineen, the Utica Comets’ head coach, will play Mercer this weekend. Given the Devils still need a third-line center, it’s probably a good bet Mercer gets at least one game down the middle, if not both. If he excels, I’d expect him to keep getting a look there during training camp and when preseason games begin.
Aside from 10 games with the Binghamton Devils at the end of the AHL season, Holtz spent 2020-21 with Djurgårdens IF in the SHL (Sweden) and totaled 18 points in 40 games. He had gotten off to a hot start with Djurgårdens but cooled down significantly after returning from the World Junior Championships. It also didn’t help that Jacob Josefson, Djurgården’s first-line center (and former Devil), missed the second half of the season with a concussion.
Josefson’s injury was more of a factor than you might think. Holtz does not do well in transition and needs to be on a line with a center who can drive play. So it’s no coincidence that Holtz’s numbers completely nosedived after Josefson’s injury. If Mercer gets a look at center at the Prospects Challenge, it’s probably safe to say Holtz plays alongside him on the wing. Mercer fared quite well in transition in the QMJHL, so he should help Holtz.
Holtz’s draft+1 season may not have been great, but he’s still the Devils prospect with the most upside. He has a wicked shot and is an underrated playmaker. If he has success alongside a center like Mercer, that should give the Devils the blueprint they need to put Holtz in the best situations to succeed.
Stillman was the 29th overall pick at the 2021 Draft. The selection was a bit controversial, given most scouting services projected him as a late second-round pick. But in fairness to him, he barely played last season due to the COVID pandemic. He only played eight games in Denmark’s junior league, where he totaled 16 points, last season due to the OHL canceling its season. He also appeared in seven games for Team Canada at the U18 World Championships, where he had four points.
Stillman is heading back to the OHL for at least another year with the Sudbury Wolves, so he won’t be playing for the Devils this season. He likely won’t in 2021-22 either. But it’ll be interesting to see where his game is, given he played so little last season. He’s regarded as a winger with a high motor who skates very well but needs to keep developing his offensive game. Has he added any new weapons to his arsenal without having played much in the last year? The Prospects Challenge could give us a bit of an idea, even if he doesn’t log all that much ice time.
The Devils acquired Foote in the trade that sent Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2020 Trade Deadline. Though Binghamton struggled mightily last season, Foote was their best player for large stretches of the season. He’s 6-foot-4, 200 pounds but has a cannon of a shot and some scoring upside. That scoring upside showed in the AHL, as he totaled 17 points in 24 games — a 56-point pace over an 80-game AHL schedule.
Given his size, goal-scoring potential and production last season, Foote will likely play on the top line this weekend, perhaps alongside Mercer and Holtz, if that’s how Dineen configures his lineup. Of the Devils’ prospects at this tournament, Foote seems to be the closest to NHL ready. There’s a spot for him in their bottom six, and a strong showing this weekend could send him into a training camp with plenty to build on as he looks to secure an NHL roster spot.
Bahl was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes in Dec. 2019. He had a so-so first pro season but did gradually progress as the season went on. The Devils would reward him with a call-up to close out 2020-21. He had some good moments during his NHL call-up, but for the most part, it was clear he still needed more time to develop.
Though Bahl is a defensive defenseman who measures 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he skates quite well for someone his size. Transitioning the puck up the ice is something he struggled with when called up to the NHL, but he did show some puck-moving ability with the Ottawa 67’s during his OHL days. Has he improved on that enough to take the next step forward in his development? The Prospects Challenge should provide some answers.
Clarke was not supposed to be playing pro hockey in 2020-21. But with the OHL canceling their season due to the COVID pandemic, he got a head start on his pro career. Clarke played in 31 games for Binghamton and finished with eight goals and 18 points — a 20-goal, 46-point pace over 80 games. After Foote, he was arguably Binghamton’s second-best player despite being one of the youngest on their roster (he turned 20 on April 24).
I’d consider Clarke a long shot to make the Devils’ opening night roster, but they still need some scoring punch at right wing. He’s a gifted offensive player with a strong shot and some sneaky good stickhandling, which he uses to his advantage in the shootout. His impressive season in the AHL may indicate that he’s a bit ahead of schedule in his development, especially since he was not supposed to be playing in the pros. A strong showing at the Prospects Challenge, and he could officially be a dark horse to start 2021-22 in the NHL.
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While the Prospects Challenge isn’t an official set of NHL games, it does serve as a stepping stone for anyone looking to make the Devils’ NHL lineup. There are a couple of spots there for the taking on their NHL roster. And a good showing this weekend could catch the eye of Devils head coach Lindy Ruff as he tries to figure out how to round out his roster before the regular season begins. Sometimes, that’s all anyone needs before breaking out in the NHL.