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The Emergence of Dawson Mercer

Dawson Mercer just turned 20 a few weeks ago. He is already among top scorers on the New Jersey Devils and all NHL rookies. It’s not just points, he is helping to drive play too. This post summarizes his emergence so far.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
All smiles for Dawson Mercer.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This is a post wherein I will write something that you, one of the People Who Matter, probably already know: Dawson Mercer of the New Jersey Devils is good. Really good. And he could become even better as he is just 20 years old as of a few weeks ago.

This is not a simple case of a rookie having a hot run of production that gets everyone out of sorts about the future. Mercer has been productive. Prior to Sunday’s game against Our Hated Rivals, Mercer is third in rookie scoring in the NHL with five goals and five assists in thirteen games. He is also second on the team in points; just one behind Andreas Johnsson. This obviously helps his profile. What has made him stand out is his rise in the lineup in the wake of Jack Hughes being out with an significant injury. According to NHL.com, he played 12:17 against Washington (first full game post-Hughes injury). That would be the last time he would play that little with the team. In every game since then, Mercer has been on the ice for at least 14 minutes per game. His even strength ice time is now 12-14 minutes with a few exceptions. Mercer received a significant amount of power play ice time, and in the recent win over the Islanders, a little bit on the penalty kill. This is a player who has moved up in the lineup - and earned it.

Earning the Minutes

More importantly, Mercer did not ascend simply because he had to with Hughes out of the lineup and others - Michael McLeod - not being capable of stepping up. No, Mercer earned these additional shifts. The proof of that is in his 5-on-5 on-ice stats. According to Natural Stat Trick, Mercer has the following on-ice rates (what the Devils do when Mercer’s on the ice) prior to yesterday’s games:

  • Corsi For% (shooting attempts by NJ out of total): 54.02%
  • Shots For% (shots on net by NJ out of total): 58.28%
  • Scoring Chances For% (scoring chances by NJ out of total): 51.20%
  • High Danger Scoring Chances For% (scoring chances in the slot or at the create by NJ out of total): 58.33%
  • Expected Goals For% (NST’s model of expected goals generated by NJ shots out of total): 52.08%
  • Actual Goals For% (Actual goals scored by NJ out of total): 80%

When Mercer has been on the ice, the Devils are playing how you would want them to play They are often pushing the play forward into the opposition’s end of the rink. They are creating offense through attempts, shots, and scoring chances. Even when there is no goal at the end of the shift, positive things are happening.

It is true that Mercer has had the good fortune of some great luck with an on-ice shooting percentage of 12.63%; which is why the Devils have out-scored their opponents by an incredible margin when Mercer is on the ice so far this season. But the expected goals model supports the notion that they would do so anyway with a cooler shooting percentage. It is to the Devils’ credit that Mercer is not alone in having such great numbers from this perspective. It also does not take away from the fact that the now-20 year old Mercer has been an objectively positive factor for the team when he has been on the ice this season. Again, this shows that he has earned his increased ice time as a center.

Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff have hit on some recent success in surrounding Mercer with Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt. Prior to Sunday’s game, Mercer has played with those two more than anyone according to Natural Stat Trick’s Teammates data for Mercer - goaltenders included. Not so coincidentally, Bratt and Johnsson have had great on-ice rates at 5-on-5 as well as production too. The same teammates data has shown that Mercer with Johnsson and Bratt have yielded fantastic results from CF% to xGF% to actual goal differential (12 GF, 2 GA with Johnsson, 7 GF, 1 GA with Bratt). Bratt has picked up his game after some deserved benching early in this season. Johnsson has picked his game up and has a hot stick right now (a ridiculous and unsustainably 28.6% before yesterday’s game). Regardless, the main point is that these three are helping each other out. The team’s two goals against Boston were excellent examples of each. They have been productive for it and the Devils have benefitted as a whole for it. Mercer is not just riding along with two hot wingers; he is helping quite a bit to make things happen.

What Does He Do Well? A Lot

What strikes me is that the young man from Bay Roberts - whom are very proud of Mercer - is that there is not one thing he does exceptionally well. He is not like Alexander Holtz or Kyle Palmieri wherein he has a great shot or a great one-timer. He is not a speedster like Jesper Bratt. He is not a tower of strength; certainly not at his official listing of 6’0” and 180 pounds. What Mercer is someone who does a lot of those things well. Mercer’s shot is good and he is willing to use it. He is quite mobile and can lead a rush up ice, support it, and fly into a backcheck. Mercer is very comfortable stickhandling the puck but without showing off to be a risk. Mercer is capable at reading plays and making good decisions on and off the puck. Mercer can - and has - work his tail off in any of the three zones. Mercer is not afraid to go into the corners, close to the net, or engage in puck battles. Mercer is a very smart player, although that does not always seem apparent in the run of play.

If there was something I would say makes Mercer stand out is when his skill flashes. Mercer will compete for pucks in difficult locations and has no concern about going into the “dirty areas.” However, Mercer has shined when he is able to utilize multiple skills to make something happen His goal from the 4-0 win over the Islanders is an example of his pace and patience to fire the shot towards far post. A better example could be his great off-the-puck movement and finish against Boston on Saturday. And perhaps an even better example would be his pass to Bratt for a goal on that same afternoon. His read of where Bratt to go and the pass was impeccable. That could be among his best plays in his young career so far. When Mercer is able to put multiple parts of his tools together, great things well.

To use a cliche term: he is an all-around forward. Someone who does a lot of things well even if they are not individually amazing. This was noted when he was a draft-eligible prospect and when he was drafted. (Aside: Alex should feel some pride about highlighting the right bits about Mercer.) Assessments to that conclusion have ended up being right so far. Are there things Mercer can work on? Sure. Faceoffs, but that may come in time and it is a minor thing. With experience, his game as a whole will grow. The defense will improve - although he certainly is not bad at it now. Ditto with the offense. We may see a dip if and when Johnsson and Bratt cool off; but the on-ice rates suggest to me it may not be so bad. Still, the reality is that Mercer is not just the team’s second line center because there is no other option. He is playing like a top-six center right now and a good one at that.

The closest comparison I can make to Mercer in terms of what his game is like is Nico Hischier. He is another 200-foot center who does a lot of things well even if not one thing immediately sticks out. Even when he is not on the scoresheet, good things tend to happen when he is on the ice. Such is the case this season. As of this writing, Hischier has been on the scoresheet quite a bit as of late. Mike noted that Hischier has become more effective in recent weeks. Mercer is in the same mold. And even if Mercer is not the one finishing the plays, if you notice Bratt or Johnsson making things happen, then Mercer was likely involved along the way. It is a great thing to have one of these kinds of players as a center. The Devils have two. Again, there is a real possibility Mercer can get even better than he is now since he is accomplishing this a mere 13 games into what is likely a long, successful NHL career. There is a reason why Mercer is mentioned among many of the People Who Matter are excited for Jack Hughes’ return. He, Hischier, and Hughes will make the Devils rather strong in a very important position. And we could see it before the year’s end depending on Hughes’ re-evaluation and the Devils’ handling of his injury.

Of course, this is all specific to the Devils and we know that Mercer has been really good. Let us expand the scope. How does he stack up with other rookies in the NHL? Let us take a quick look.

Mercer vs. Other NHL Rookies

Is Dawson Mercer the best rookie in the NHL? No. If the Calder Trophy, awarded to the best rookie of the year, was awarded today, would Mercer win it? No. But he may be in the running for it and come a lot closer to winning it than you may think.

The two standout rookies are the two ahead of Mercer in points heading into this weekend. Both are Detroit Red Wings: winger Lucas Raymond and defenseman Mortiz Seider. The production alone makes them early favorites. Raymond has been a point machine with 14 in 15 games to go with an astounding 41 shots on net. Seider has averaged just under 22-and-a-half minutes and has ten points in his first 16 games. While Mercer’s on-ice rates are better than both in some categories according to Natural Stat Trick (minimum 100 minutes), Raymond has been above breakeven with a fantastic xGF% of nearly 57% and Seider is not so far below the 50% mark in some areas. Detroit is a different team, so it is possible both Raymond and Seider are among the better Red Wings in 5-on-5. And the larger point remains: they’re helping their team create more offense than they allow and put up a heap of points. That would strengthen their case as they are showing to be important players for a re-building team immediately. It also makes either of them the early favorites for the Calder.

And this rookie class is not a weak one. Especially when you look into their 5-on-5 stats, which is part of the reason why Mercer has been so impressive this season. Connor McMichael on Washington has been super-effective when he gets a shift. Brandon Duhaime has been a real good winger for Minnesota in the run of play. Defenseman Bowen Byram in Colorado has received significant minutes and he has been very good for the run of play. As the Avalanche may be without Samuel Girard, the team will lean more on Byram in coming weeks. Should he continue to flourish among the metrics and on the scoresheet - he is not far behind Mercer in points - then he could rise up as a Calder favorite too. Especially if Raymond and/or Seider cools off in Detroit. I would also not immediately count out Arthur Kaliyev, Anton Lundell, or Trevor Zegras among others. And, of course, these are all skaters. Should Alex Nedeljkovic or Spencer Knight turn into walls, then they will enter this conversation. The point is that it’s not just the two Red Wings and Mercer in the mix.

That all stated, this does not mean that Mercer is just a guy among the rookie class. He is very much above the vast majority of them right now. No, Mercer’s on-ice rates have been better than the majority of the rookies in the NHL with at least 100 minutes played so far. His 10 points - which again, places Mercer third among all rookies in scoring ahead of Sunday’s games. It is fair to say that Mercer is among the top rookies in 2021-22 so far. I would go as far as to say that after Raymond and Seider, he’s the best rookie in the whole league. And if you factor in that Raymond and Seider are on the same team, that may help in a voting process should this situation remain for the next 60+ games.

There is a lot left in this season to determine who will win this award. Should Mercer keep it up, then it is very possible he ends up finishing high in the voting in my opinion. His current form is enough to eventually be a finalist for the trophy. A lot would have to happen for anything further. Again, a lot could still happen. Trophies are not won in November anyway. But Mercer (and Raymond and Seider) are well on their way given how they have started their respective seasons.

Your Take

Mercer has been emerging on the team and he has immediately become one of the team’s best players. His recent line with Bratt and Johnsson has been successful on the scoresheet and in the run of play. When Mercer has been on the ice in 5-on-5, good things happen for the Devils more often than bad things. His role is growing on the team and not just because there are no other good options. Mercer may not be the best rookie in the NHL, but he is among the best at the moment. And Mercer is doing it with a collection of good skills that, when put together, has made some great things happen early on in this season. You may have known all that, but it is still valuable to point it out considering this is still a barely 20-year old first-time NHLer accomplishing all this and this is certainly not common in the NHL.

I know turn it to you to provide likely more praise about Dawson Mercer. What have you noticed about Mercer’s game and his performances so far? Did you expect him to be this good at all? Or to contribute this much so soon? How has Mercer’s start to his career change your expectations of his future, if at all? Most of all, what has impressed you the most about Mercer? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Mercer in the comments. Thank you for reading.