It may not be October yet, but we are getting awfully close. Training camp will officially begin next week, and while we wait fans were blessed with some Friday night hockey. Last night the New Jersey Devils began their Prospects Challenge tournament at LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo, New York.
The final score was 3-0 in favor of the home team. The Devils only registered two shots on goal in the first period, and at the conclusion Buffalo’s goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen faced 22 shots. It was the first game the prospects played together, and while the team may not have impressed, a handful of players had a respectable outing. Let’s start with the biggest standout in my opinion, the player between the pipes.
Nico Daws is a 20-year-old goaltender who was drafted by the Devils in the third round of the 2020 Draft. During the 2020-21 season he played 10 games for the ERC Ingolstadt, which is a team based out of Germany and is part of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. Utica Comets head coach Kevin Dineen announced for the first game of the round-robin style tournament Daws would play the full 60-minute game.
Like most, if not all, of the Devils prospects on the ice, Daws’ nerves could be seen in the first few minutes of the game. He quickly settled in and stopped both of Linus Weissbach’s breakaway attempts in the first period. The Sabres capitalized on the power play when Daws was unable to control a rebound around the net. The 6-foot-4 goaltender played a solid game and let in one additional power-play goal in the second period — another rebound. The team’s loss can’t rest solely on shoulders of the young goaltender, especially when the offense was unable to contribute.
My colleague, Alex Chauvancy, explained why Mercer would be a player to watch during the Prospect Challenge. The Newfoundland native was drafted 18th overall in 2020, and there is an air of excitement around the 19-year-old.
“(Dawson is) the guy we’re so excited about,” Devils assistant general manager (GM) and GM of Utica Dan MacKinnon said earlier this summer, “because you just know he’s going to be able to step in and have a pretty well-rounded, mature pro-style game right away, but also the skill to produce points and not just be a checker.”
Mercer molds his game after Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. Like Bergeron, the young center was impressive on both sides of the ice in the Devils’ loss. He had some good looks offensively and made a statement defensively as well. If he was not shooting the puck, he was attempting to to break up a play in the defensive zone.
I think we can all agree Ken Daneyko had a smile on his face watching Nikita Okhotiuk in last night’s game. For years the Devils analyst has been stating he wants to see a more physical game, and Okhotiuk delivered in Buffalo. During each and every one of his shifts, the 6-foot-1 Russian made it his mission to hit anyone wearing white and blue.
“He comes off as a guy that has infectious enthusiasm about his game,” Dineen said after the game. “I think that filters into the locker room and into practice. We see that on a daily basis. That’s my first live viewing and I thought he had a good showing.”
Late in the first period, the defenseman was called for a double-minor. He drew an interference call after a hit on Riley Fiddler-Schultz and followed the hit by punching Arttu Ruostalainen, who came to Fiddler-Schultz defense. The referees added a roughing penalty in addition to the original call. During his post-game interview, Okhotiuk emphasized that he does not want to play dirty. Once the 20-year-old refines his game, there is plenty of reason to be excited about his development on the blue line.
Of course fans would like to see the team win during the tournament, but what’s more important is the performance of the individual players. They will have one more chance to make an impression before training camp begins. The Devils’ final game of the tournament will take place tomorrow, Sept. 19, 2021 at 1:00 P.M. against the Bruins.
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.