In the blink of an eye, the New Jersey Devils reached the quarter mark of the season. They started on a bit of a rollercoaster, and the Devils now have a 10-11-5 record. With the first 26 games in the books, it’s time to see which players have stepped up to earn an award at the quarter mark.
Devils’ Rookie of the Year: Dawson Mercer
There is only one correct answer for the Devils’ Rookie of the Year (so far), and it is Dawson Mercer. The 20-year-old Newfoundland native has been a shining star since he made the Devils’ opening-night roster, and he simply can not be ignored. The coaching staff has entrusted him in all situations, and in return, he has shown he can handle whatever they throw at him.
“I try and give a young player as much as he can handle and he’s been able to handle almost whatever I’ve thrown at him so far,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said of Mercer. “He takes what you usually give him, and the physical side of the game hasn’t bothered him yet, so with the absence of a couple key players up front, we need him to play a fairly large role.”
The coaching staff put Mercer on a line with Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt, and they became one of the best lines in the league. However, when Jack Hughes returned, they broke the trio up, to the dismay of fans. Since then, Mercer has played with Hughes, Tomas Tatar, and Jimmy Vesey. But regardless of who he is on a line with, Mercer’s creativity and net-front presence make those around him better.
Devils’ Most Valuable Player: Jesper Bratt
During Devils media day, Jesper Bratt walked to the podium to field questions to discuss his offseason and wanting to play a bigger role with the team, among other things.
“I’m just trying to get stronger, faster, and in better shape,” said Bratt. “I’m looking to become a more complete player, and I feel like I had a good offseason…I want to take my game to the next step and become more of a leader-type player that the team can trust and take a little bigger role.”
Mission accomplished. He leads the team with 24 points in 26 games and is on pace for a 75-point campaign. He will be a restricted free agent this offseason and has been putting together a nice argument for a raise. He has become an asset, and the Devils would be lower in the standings if not for his speed and skills in the offensive zone.
Devils’ Most Surprising Player: Andreas Johnsson
New Jersey traded Joey Anderson to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Andreas Johnsson on Oct. 10, 2020. Last season, the 5-foot-10 Swede appeared in 50 games and finished the 2020-21 campaign with 11 points. Fans expected more from the 27-year-old, and this season he has delivered.
He has a team-leading nine goals and 19 points, and he’s been consistently one of the best forwards on the team through the first 26 games. My colleague Alex Chauvancy wrote about Johnsson returning to form after last season, and the Devils’ decision to protect him ahead of the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft seems to be paying dividends.
Devils’ Most Disappointing: Ty Smith
Ty Smith has struggled through the first quarter of the season. The 21-year-old defenseman missed training camp and has been playing catch-up since his return. He’s already been a healthy scratch a couple of times this season, and the coaching staff has been working to get him to where he should be.
Smith could also be dealing with the dreaded sophomore slump on top of missing time due to injury. Connor Hellebuyck and Dylan Larkin both battled through difficult sophomore seasons, but got it through it to earn a Vezina Trophy (with the Winnipeg Jets) and the Detroit Red Wings captaincy, respectively. The media asked fellow defenseman P.K. Subban about Smith early in the season, and he quickly stated he has no concerns about him. Patience will pay off as Smith looks to recapture the magic of his rookie campaign.
Devils’ Season Ahead
As a team, the Devils should have already shown glimpses of solid play, but the positives have been overshadowed by their overall inconsistency. They remain in sixth in the Metropolitan Division, four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. If the coaching staff can help clean up some areas and solve the power play problems, New Jersey could make a serious run for the final wild-card spot. There are 56 games remaining to prove the Devils are finally over the hump and emerging from their rebuild.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.