A little over three years ago, the New Jersey Devils made a move that would alter the direction of their franchise: they shipped former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. The trade created a ripple effect that the Devils are still feeling today, as they received Kevin Bahl, Nate Schnarr, Nick Merkley, and a 2020 first-round pick. Schnarr and Merkley have since moved on from the organization, while Bahl is in and out of the lineup on a per-game basis. The 2020 first-round pick, however, is the diamond among the package. The Devils used it on Dawson Mercer, who has flourished in the NHL since his arrival.
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Just one year after the draft, Mercer made his NHL debut, and his rookie season impressed many Devils fans. However, there was some concern about a potential “sophomore slump” for the 21-year-old. Fortunately for New Jersey, Mercer has held steady from his strong rookie season, and there’s potential that his second year may be better than his first.
Mercer’s Debut Was an Unexpected Surprise
While Mercer’s projected draft position changed rapidly as the day neared, he was selected with the 18th-overall pick by the Devils. Entering the organization, he already had pressure put on him, not because of where he went, but because of how the pick was acquired. The 18th pick in the 2020 NHL Draft was part of the return for a player who won the Hart Trophy just 18 months prior. It felt like the perfect complement to the Devils’ other first-round pick, Alexander Holtz. Both were forwards who were viewed as skilled shooters, something New Jersey desperately needed at the time. He was seen as “equal parts playmaker and goal scorer,” according to Brock Otten of McKeen’s Hockey.
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Mercer returned to his junior team, the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, putting up 36 points in 23 games, but it was the 17 points in nine playoff games that caught the eye of Tom Fitzgerald and company. Specifically, the World Junior Championships allowed Fitzgerald to get a closer look at one of his newest draft picks. “Watching Dawson Mercer just play in any position the coach asked him to, any line, any situation, you watch him kill penalties,” Fitzgerald said of Mercer. “He can play the left side, right side, he’s heavy on pucks.”
His final junior season was impacted heavily by the pandemic, but that was not the case when it came to his rookie year in the NHL. Mercer played all 82 games for the Devils, putting up totals that took everyone by shock. While it was expected he would be a third- or fourth-line contributor, Mercer wowed with 17 goals and 42 points in his rookie campaign. He finished 11th in Calder Trophy voting, and it seemed like the Devils struck gold in the draft again. Most notably, he played in all 82 games that season, the only player on the roster to do so. As a 20-year-old, he was sixth on the team in scoring, and the sky was the limit for him. When asked if Mercer exceeded expectations, Fitzgerald was frank in his response. “Yes, plain and simple. I thought he’d be in Utica to be honest.”
Holding Steady in Year 2
Entering the 2022-23 season, while New Jersey was not viewed as a contender to start, Mercer was now a piece that the team could build around. While Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, Vitek Vanecek, and Jesper Bratt were receiving the attention, Mercer continued along, and he is quietly outpacing some of the numbers he put up last season.
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In 33 games, continuing his reputation as an iron man, Mercer has eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points, putting him on a 43-point pace for the full 82-game season. His goal total is expected to increase from 16 in his rookie year to 19 in 2022-23. His shot percentage has increased from 11 percent to 12.3 percent, and in return, he’s finding the puck more often on his stick. His teammates are letting him take more chances, and he’s converting on them. Through the team’s first 33 games, Mercer has 115 shot attempts, averaging out to 3.48 per game. Out of those 115, 65 have found their way on net, which is more than he had at this point in 2021-22. Furthermore, he has 24 blocks on the year, and is on pace to shatter the 35 that he had last season.
Mercer, while improving his own offensive output, is also doing more for the team as a whole when he’s on the ice. He’s created seven goals so far, and if he were to continue this pace, he would create a total of 17 on the season. In his rookie season, Mercer was on the ice for 94 opposing goals. This year, with the team as a whole improving, he’s been on the ice for only 25. Mercer’s scoring metrics per 60 minutes have also seen a rise, as his goals, primary assists, points, and shots increased from last year. While Mercer struggled in the faceoff circle last season, he’s improved in his sophomore campaign. His 42.7 percent success rate is higher than his 35.4 percent in his rookie year, although this year is a much smaller sample size.
Head coach Lindy Ruff is not afraid to shake up his lines on a per game basis, and Mercer has seen quite the fair share of skaters on his. Recently, he’s been paired with Yegor Sharangovich, who’s had an up-and-down season in his own right. Fortunately, Sharangovich was able to end his goal drought on Dec. 21 against the Florida Panthers. Over the past five games, though, Mercer has struggled. He last found the back of the net in the overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 12, and over that stretch he’s a minus-3. It doesn’t help that the Devils recently went through a five-game losing streak, where the entire team underperformed. There will be plenty of opportunities for Mercer to get out of his rough patch, especially once Sharangovich starts to find his groove again.
It is common to hear about a “sophomore slump” in regards to players who had a successful rookie season. After Mercer put up 42 points last year, it was expected that his numbers would slide a little bit. However, he has not only matched his totals, but is on pace to exceed them in some categories. At just 21 years old, Mercer is prime for a breakout season down the road. His 18 points are fifth on a Devils team loaded with bright young talent. The Taylor Hall trade of three years ago has been a boon for New Jersey. While Hall is two teams removed from the Coyotes, Mercer’s Devils career has just started. If his first season and a half are any indication, he could be in for a long and successful run in the Red and Black.