Devils’ Top Line Shines at Prospects Challenge

The New Jersey Devils concluded their first set of exhibition games this weekend at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, New York. They went 1-1, losing to the Buffalo Sabres on Friday but defeating the Boston Bruins 4-3 yesterday afternoon. While no Devils prospect had a bad weekend, it was the top line of Dawson Mercer, Alexander Holtz and Nolan Foote that shined in the team’s two games this weekend.

The Devils were shut out on Friday, but Mercer and his linemates played well and generated chances. They built on that in a big way and were responsible for three of the team’s four goals yesterday. Holtz and Foote each had a goal and an assist, while Mercer finished with a goal and two assists. Each of these players is among the Devils’ top five prospects. And with training camp opening in two days, they should be riding high on confidence as they look to battle for NHL roster spots. 

Mercer Steals the Show

A lot of what made the Devils’ top line successful this weekend started with the play of Mercer, who was the 18th overall pick at the 2020 Draft. His terrific all-around game was on display, and it showed against the Sabres, as my colleague Kristy Flannery pointed out in her write-up on Saturday. That carried over into yesterday’s win with a standout performance. 

Mercer got the scoring started yesterday on a nifty little play from behind the net by Holtz, who set up Mercer in the slot. Mercer would then collect a secondary assist on Holtz’s goal and had a crafty set up to give Foote a wide-open net for an easy one-timer goal on the power play. 

While Mercer did show some of the promising offensive upside he had during his time in the QMJHL, his defensive game also stood out. He was constantly battling for pucks and managing to create turnovers, with two instances standing out to me. Late in the first period, Mercer made a nice play on the penalty kill when he collected the puck and used his stickhandling to spin around and clear it down the ice. Late in the third period, with the Bruins looking to tie the game, he broke up a Bruins rush by cutting off a pass from Fabian Lysell. He cleared the puck and managed to kill any threat the Bruins were trying to generate.  

Dawson Mercer Drummondville Voltigeurs
Dawson Mercer with the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL (Drummondville Voltigeurs)

It’s no secret the Devils have a hole to fill as their third-line center. Auditioning Mercer, who can play right wing too, at center is no accident. And so far, the early returns are very encouraging. However, for as great as Mercer was this weekend, it was a prospects tournament. Could he make the Devils’ NHL roster? There’s no doubt he has a shot, but preseason games are a different ballgame. He’ll be going up against players with plenty more NHL experience than him. That’s his next challenge, but if Mercer plays close to the way he did this weekend in preseason games, he’s going to give head coach Lindy Ruff a lot to think about when he’s finalizing his opening night roster. 

Holtz Displays Dynamic Offensive Potential

Holtz is a high-upside prospect; there’s no doubt about that. But he did have a so-so draft+1 season in 2020-21. After getting off to a very hot start with Djurgårdens in the SHL (Sweden), Holtz cooled off dramatically after returning from the World Junior Championships. He finished with 18 points in 40 games with Djurgårdens before coming to North America and playing in 10 AHL games with the Binghamton Devils, where he had three points. 

Part of the reason for Holtz’s just okay draft+1 season had to do with Jacob Josefson’s injury with Djurgårdens. Josefson sustained a concussion and missed the second half of the season, which is when Holtz’s production fell off a cliff. The reason for that is he’s not great in transition. He needs a center on his line who can gain the offensive zone and get him the puck, which is when he’s is at his best. 

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For whatever you remember of Josefson’s time with the Devils, he’s not that player in Sweden. He was the SHL’s MVP after the 2018-19 season, where he totaled 35 points in 40 games, and was Djurgårdens’ first-line center. He made that team go and was a big reason Holtz had so much success in the first part of the 2020-21 SHL season. 

Fast forward to this weekend, and Holtz looked more like the player he was in the first part of 2020-21. His playmaking is an underrated part of his arsenal, which he demonstrated on Mercer’s goal. But his shot is lethal when he gets a chance to pick his corners. His goal yesterday was Ovechkin-esque, a wicked wrist shot from the Ovechkin spot on the power play that knocked the goaltender’s water bottle off the top of the net, a reminder of why he was the seventh overall pick in 2020.  

Speaking of Mercer, he played a big part in helping Holtz break out this weekend. Mercer excels in transition and can do the hard work to gain the offensive zone. Though they didn’t score against the Sabres on Friday night, Holtz had a few quality chances and was perhaps their best creator in that game. When he has a center who can get his line into the offensive zone, he can do those kinds of things. And it paid off yesterday with his two-point game. 

That’s what makes Holtz such an intriguing fit as a linemate for Jack Hughes down the road. Hughes is a zone entry machine and is already one of the best transition centers in the league. We’re probably still a bit away from seeing those two on a line together. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Holtz and Mercer continue to get looks together in training camp and perhaps the first couple of preseason games. 

Foote Not Flashy But Makes Presence Felt

Foote did not have the flashy weekend that Mercer or even Holtz had, but he still played a big part in this line’s success. Foote is a much different player than the former two. He’s skillful and has a powerful shot, but at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he has a different style of play. He’ll use his big frame along the boards to win puck battles and keep a play going. That was the case on Mercer’s goal yesterday, as he jarred the puck loose to Holtz, who then set up Mercer.  

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Heading into the Prospects Challenge, Foote seemed like the Devils’ most NHL-ready prospect. While not flashy, he made his case that he’s ready to battle for an NHL roster spot too. The Devils have one or two openings in their bottom six, especially after losing Nathan Bastian to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Foote projects as a middle-six or second-line winger down the road. But given his makeup and the style of hockey he plays, he could probably handle a bottom-six role well. Add his shot to the third or fourth lines, and he could give the Devils scoring depth they didn’t have in 2020-21. 

Nolan Foote Binghamton Devils
Nolan Foote with the Binghamton Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Will all three of Mercer, Holtz and Foote make the opening night roster? There’s room for one, even two of them. If I had to bet today, I’d say only Foote makes the team out of camp. But if Mercer plays the way he did this weekend in preseason games, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to leave him off the team. Holtz has a chance, too, because of his skill and dynamite of a shot. 

And that was arguably the biggest takeaway from the tournament; three of the Devils’ top five prospects are close to making an impact in the NHL. There’s been a lot made of the Devils getting ready to turn the corner in their rebuild. But with their offseason additions and the play of Mercer, Holtz and Foote at the Prospects Challenge, that might finally be coming to fruition.