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Dawson Mercer Should Be in the NHL on Opening Night

Based on his trajectory as a player, plus an impressive training camp and preseason, the Devils would be wise to start Dawson Mercer at center in their opening night lineup next Friday.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the preseason comes to a close (unceremoniously, after last night’s power outage-induced cancellation), the Devils are now in the home-stretch of the lead up to the season. Now, sights turn to what the final roster will be in New Jersey with training camp and the preseason now in the rearview. The team will need make their final cuts prior to next week’s opener on October 15th. There were some strong performances this preseason and also a few somewhat disappointing turns. One of the standouts of training camp and the preseason, particularly among the rookies, has been Dawson Mercer.

The 2020 first-round pick was one of the most anticipated camp attendees heading into September. He did not disappoint, becoming one of the main storylines in the leadup to the season. The question now becomes whether the team believes he did enough to warrant a spot on the opening-night roster. Mercer was part of a group of several young players coming into camp who hoped to snag one of the final roster spots at forward. Some, like Graeme Clarke, Fabian Zetterlund, and Nolan Foote, were unable to really get any traction to make their case and have already been returned to the AHL as a result. Others, like Tyce Thompson, Chase DeLeo, and A.J. Greer remain with the team but haven’t made a huge splash and are likely battling for 4th line/extra forward spots if anything. Mercer and his fellow 2020 first-round pick Alexander Holtz, however, have made major splashes that make it much more difficult for the team to leave them off the roster.

As it stands, the Devils have 17 forwards on the roster plus another 3 PTOs left with the team. Of those, I would say 10 are probably locks to be in the lineup on opening night (barring injury):

  • Jack Hughes
  • Nico Hischier
  • Jesper Bratt
  • Pavel Zacha
  • Yegor Sharangovich
  • Janne Kuokkanen
  • Tomas Tatar
  • Miles Wood
  • Andreas Johnsson
  • Michael McLeod

That leaves the following group to fill in the final two spots plus one or two extra slots in the scratch suite on opening night.

  • Jesper Boqvist
  • Dawson Mercer
  • Alexander Holtz
  • Tyce Thompson
  • Chase De Leo
  • Mark Jankowski (PTO)
  • Jimmy Vesey (PTO)
  • A.J. Greer
  • Frederik Gauthier (PTO)
  • Mason Geertsen

If you had to pick two players who impressed the most out of this group in camp and the preseason, I think you could say it was Mercer and Holtz without much hesitation. Obviously other factors are present in selecting a roster (waiver-eligibility, position, expected role, and player development considerations, among other things), but I think if you were going by who was most impactful, you’d probably put Mercer at the top of this group.

Among the remaining forwards battling for a spot, Boqvist, Mercer, Holtz, and Thompson are waiver-exempt, making them easy to send down to the AHL if the team decided to go that route, but when you look at this group, I don’t think the waiver-eligible players are at much risk of being claimed (aside from Geertsen, since his former team, the Rangers, could claim him and send him directly to the AHL based on my understanding of the rules). Among the PTOs, I don’t think any have shown a ton in camp, though I could see Vesey and/or Jankowski being kept around as extra forwards with solid NHL experience.

No matter how you slice it, though, I think it is difficult to argue that Dawson Mercer should not at least get a shot with the big club to start this season. I wrote a couple times this offseason about the concerns with center depth for the Devils, and with Mercer looking comfortable—and even dynamic, at times—at the position in his preseason appearances (not to mention his strong turn at the prospect challenge prior to preseason), it seems like the Devils could have an answer to a question mark that has been hanging over the roster for the past couple of months. Mercer looks like a player and, beyond the three points in three games that he put up, he finished with a 5v5 xGF% over 50, he played in all three phases of the game, getting minutes on both the power play and penalty kill, and he just looked the part on the ice, winning board battles and being involved all around the net at the offensive end.

I don’t want to put too much on the rookie, here, but carrying Mercer has a lot of knock-on benefits for the Devils and their roster. It allows them to keep Pavel Zacha on the wing, it allows them to keep McLeod in a fourth-line energy role where he is best suited, and it also just makes them deeper at center. Rather than choosing between moving Zacha to center or icing one of McLeod, Boqvist, or maybe Jankowski in a top-nine center role, the Devils have a player with some potential to drive play and create a third line that is a real nuisance to the Devils’ opponents. Alexander Holtz had a similarly strong preseason, but even he doesn’t patch up potential holes in the lineup quite the same way that Mercer could (aside: For the record, I think the Devils should probably start him in the NHL as well, but that’s another post for another day).

So come next Friday, I hope the Devils do what I think is best for the team—and for Dawson Mercer’s development, to be honest—and give him a lineup spot on the opening night of the season. Based on what we’ve seen so far from the rookie out of Chicoutimi, he’s earned it and it seems like the smartest course of action for a team looking to make a move in the right direction this season.