It may have been a bit more dramatic than expected, but regardless the New Jersey Devils’ preseason has come to an end. Thursday night’s game against the New York Islanders was canceled due to a partial power outage at Prudential Center, which means their overall preseason record stands at 4-1.
Whether fans admit it or not, everyone knows there is an expectation around this team as they prepare for the regular season. A team does not sign Dougie Hamilton and expect mediocracy. Over the past two weeks there have been signs of things finally moving in the right direction for the Devils, starting with young players who show the future is bright in The Garden State.
Dawson Mercer & Alexander Holtz Were Standouts
Finally, the Devils have players in their pipeline that fans can get excited about. Forwards Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz will make coach Lindy’s Ruff job difficult when it comes to trimming down the roster for opening night. Mercer has been a standout since the Prospects Challenge and Holtz notched four points in five games. Fans are chomping at the bit to see both players make the opening night roster, but need to focus on what will be best for their long-term development.
Mercer will be turning 20 later this month. Ahead of training camp it appeared he would be heading to the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League (AHL). Now, he seems to be a favorite to be the Devils’ third-line center. The Newfoundland native has made the most of his camp and has utilized all of his resources to become a better player.
“He’s playing well,” Devils coach Ruff said to media. “He’s been a real good surprise for me and everybody who watches him play. He has a lot of fun playing the game. He’s got good energy, he understands where to be defensively. He competes hard.”
At this juncture I would say Mercer will make his NHL debut on Oct. 15, 2021, when the Devils host the Chicago Blackhawks. He is a strong two-way player who showcased his offensive abilities along with how responsible he is defensively. The only question that remains is would it benefit Mercer to play bottom-six minutes in the NHL instead of playing top minutes in the AHL? This leads us to the other 19-year-old fighting for a roster spot.
Holtz was selected by the Devils seventh overall in the 2020 Draft. He spent time playing overseas in the Swedish Hockey League before playing 10 games with the Binghamton Devils last season. He finished the preseason tied with Pavel Zacha for most points this preseason. Offensively his abilities are up there with Mercer, but there is one difference. Holtz’ defensive game is not quite there… yet.
When I look at Holtz and the different routes he can take in his development, I can’t help but think of the development of Eeli Tolvanen of the Nashville Predators. Tolvanen may have taken the longer road to the NHL, but it paid off dividends as he is a top-six forward. I would like to see Holtz spend time in the AHL where he has a chance to play a lot of minutes. If there is a mid-season injury, I could see him as the player who is called up. In the long-term, I do not think it would benefit his development if he starts the season with the team playing limited minutes on the fourth line.
A Questionable Goaltending Situation
The signing of Jonathan Bernier on July 28, 2021, brought with it a sigh of relief. It appeared that Mackenzie Blackwood finally found a reliable back up and, for once, goaltending would not be an issue for the Devils. Of course, things do not always go according to plan.
On Sept. 28, 2021, Blackwood stepped up to the Devils’ podium to discuss his vaccination status. He is the lone player in New Jersey’s locker room who has not received a COVID-19 vaccination. This means he would not be allowed to travel to Canada with the team this season. In addition to his vaccination status, he also revealed he had surgery on his heel in June, that is close to being fully healed.
“I’ve just been working through the process of it from a health standpoint, and just kind of checking off my boxes with that first,” Blackwood said to media regarding his vaccination status.
The team announced Blackwood was pulled out of Thursday’s game for precautionary reasons due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test. He saw ice time in two of the Devils’ preseason games, and handled himself well when challenged by opponents. Until we learn more about his test results, fans can expect Bernier to get more ice time than originally suspected.
Zacha Can Have Breakout Season
If there is one thing I am certain of it is that Zacha is visibly in much better shape this season than he was last. It is one thing for a player to discuss his conditioning and how he feels, but it’s a whole different thing when it translates onto the ice and you see it for yourself. He finished last season with a career-high 35 points. His 17 goals were tied for the team’s best, and he said he feels even more energized coming into this season.
“I feel like I have more energy,” Zacha said to Devils media. “I can (stay) longer on the ice. After 20-30 seconds, I still have energy to skate at 100 percent. It’s something I didn’t have, especially at the start of last year. It’s something I knew I had to get better. It’s going to help me take another step this year. I’m just trying to focus on that and get better.”
During media day, coach Ruff stated Zacha would play as a center. By the conclusion of training camp, the 6-foot-3 forward moved to the wing and was reunited with with Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. The line played together last season, at least when Hischier was healthy, and it appears they will remain intact this season. Playing with Hischier and Bratt will further elevate Zacha’s game this season.
Overall there were plenty of positives since the Devils returned to the ice. The defense has improved in both size and skill, and the young team plays a speedy, exciting game. More cuts will need to be made before they host the Blackhawks, but fans can expect an improved roster who will try to be stay competitive in one of the most difficult divisions in the NHL.
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.