The New Jersey Devils have gotten off to a fast start to their preseason. They defeated the Washington Capitals 5-4 on Wednesday evening and followed it up with a 7-1 beatdown of the New York Rangers last night. Sure it’s only the preseason, but the Devils are getting notable performances from players like Dougie Hamilton and top prospects Dawson Mercer and Alex Holtz.
With four preseason games to go, including this afternoon’s tilt against the New York Islanders, let’s take a look at which Devils have stood out in the early goings of exhibition games.
Mercer Keeps on Impressing
Mercer has been the talk of the town since the Prospects Challenge two weeks ago in Buffalo, New York. After impressing in Buffalo and the team’s training camp scrimmages, he’s carried that momentum over into preseason games. He got off to a slow start against the Capitals but finished strong. He had a highlight-reel goal when he scored to tie the game early in the third period with a great individual effort:
Mercer followed up his solid preseason debut with a strong outing against the Rangers. The Devils had a 15-7 shot attempt advantage and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 71.3 percent with him on the ice at five-on-five. He also tallied the team’s seventh and final goal of the night with a silky smooth move on a breakaway after K’Andre Miller fumbled the puck at the blue line.
If Mercer keeps playing this way, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to keep him off the opening night roster. It’s not just his offensive game that adds a different dimension to the Devils’ roster; he’s a complete two-way player, has a relentless motor and can kill penalties. He also excels in transition and can drive play. There are still three preseason games left that he’ll likely play in. And as of now, he seems like the betting favorite to be the team’s third-line center.
Hamilton Shines in Preseason Debut
The Devils signed Hamilton as a free agent this offseason. And if his preseason debut is any indication, he’s going to have a significant impact in 2021-22. He finished with two assists last night while logging 23:53 of ice time in all situations. As has been the case through most of his career, he excelled at five-on-five, finishing with an xG% of 62.9 percent. He thrived in transition, a strength of his and something the Devils’ blue line has lacked for quite some time.
It’s pretty clear the Devils have big plans for Hamilton. He played in all situations last night, and the power play looked much crisper with him operating the point than it did without him on Wednesday night. As head coach Lindy Ruff said to reporters last night about Hamilton: “I think there’s other defensemen on our squad [that] can learn from the way he plays, what he does with the puck. There wasn’t anything there that was sparkling, but it’s just so simple and effective that it looks so easy.”
Holtz Builds on Strong Performance
Holtz had an impressive debut in Wednesday’s tilt against the Capitals, where he tallied a goal and an assist. He also finished second on the Devils in game score and was in the top 10 league-wide that night. He got a second crack at it against the Rangers and tallied an assist on Janne Kuokkanen’s power play goal. The Devils had an 11-6 shot attempt advantage and an xG% of 67.6 percent with him on the ice at five-on-five.
Holtz is a much different player than Mercer. He doesn’t have the two-way game, but he adds a more dynamic offensive element. Holtz has arguably the best shot on the team, and it might not be close. It’s just that good. His play off the puck has been better than expected, an area where he seems to have improved. What’s notable about his first two preseason games is that he’s looked good alongside different linemates. He was paired with Nico Hischier and Miles Wood last night and with Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich on Wednesday. If he thrives with different linemates during preseason games, that should increase his odds of making the team.
Jonathan Bernier Rebounds
Bernier had a tough outing on Wednesday, allowing four goals on 17 shots and finishing with a goals saved above expected (GSAx) of -2.4 in only two periods of play. But he rebounded in a big way against the Rangers, finishing with 24 saves on 25 shots and a GSAx of 0.85. He didn’t face too many quality chances against the Rangers, but he made six saves on six high-danger shots, which was a strength of his during his time with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Devils signed Bernier this offseason to be a 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood. I wouldn’t expect him to play the way he did last night in every start he makes, but the Devils will need that more often than not. They haven’t had a legitimate tandem since the 2017-18 season when Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid led them to the playoffs. Since then, the Devils have gotten mostly below league-average goaltending, especially when Blackwood hasn’t started. If Bernier can give them league average or better goaltending as he did last night, they’ll be in games more often than not.
Jimmy Vesey Shows He Belongs
After struggling against the Capitals, Vesey picked up his game against the Rangers. He played on a line with Mercer and Jesper Boqvist, who quietly had a solid outing, too, and performed quite well. Vesey netted his first goal of the preseason and was a factor at five-on-five, finishing with an xG% of 71.2 percent.
If the rest of Vesey’s preseason looks more like last night, he should be able to turn his PTO into an NHL contract. He might not play high up the Devils’ lineup if he makes their roster, especially if Holtz and Mercer make the team too. But he could provide valuable depth as a fourth-line winger, and his ability to kill penalties helps his cause. That could give him an edge when the Devils are finalizing their opening night roster.
Pavel Zacha Struggles at Center
Zacha made his preseason debut last night, playing center on a line with Kuokkanen and Tomáš Tatar, who the Devils signed as a free agent this offseason. The results were not great, however. Zacha finished with an xG% of 31.1 percent, the third-worst on the team. And for what it’s worth, his linemates were the only two players with a worse xG%. The Devils were out-attempted 9-3 and had an xG% of 17.8 percent with them as a line.
We’ve seen this before with Zacha at center. His line routinely gets caved in, and the Devils bleed shots and scoring chances as a result. With Mercer playing as well as he is, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Zacha remains down the middle. Ruff won’t make the change after one game, but Zacha had plenty of success at left wing in 2020-21. His shoot-first mentality is a better fit on the wing, and he doesn’t have to worry about carrying a line; his linemates can do the work instead. Could a unit with Mercer at center and Zacha, Tatar or Kuokkanen on the wing be a possibility? Time will tell, but it’s something worth experimenting with sooner than later.
Colton White Makes Case To Be Seventh Defenseman
The Devils’ top six among their blue line is as close to set in stone as it can be. But they still need to figure out who their seventh and perhaps eighth defensemen are going to be. Nikita Okhotiuk and Christián Jaroš, who the Devils acquired from the San Jose Sharks this offseason, got a look against the Capitals but had tough nights.
Yesterday was White’s chance, and he certainly made the most of it. He finished the night with an xG% of 59.3 percent and had a pretty assist on Tatar’s goal in the second period. Notably, Ruff paired White with Hamilton. Being on a pair with Hamilton will help almost any defenseman, but Ruff wouldn’t have put him there if he didn’t think he could handle the minutes. White fared well in a couple of NHL games in 2020-21, and appears to be the frontrunner to make the roster as a seventh defenseman. If he plays the way he did last night, the position is his to lose.
Early Returns Are Positive
The Devils are off to a great start to their preseason. With that said, it is only the preseason, and both the Capitals and Rangers iced relatively watered-down lineups. Still, they should be pleased with some of the performances they’ve received from Holtz, Mercer and other players they expect to contribute. The biggest question mark is figuring out a place for Zacha in the lineup. But that shouldn’t be a difficult change to make, especially if Mercer keeps thriving at center. If that’s their most significant concern through two preseason games, then they’re in a good place early on.
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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