The Devils resume their season tonight, and there is little hope of a playoff birth at this stage of the season (MoneyPuck lists their chances at 1.4%). It’s not impossible that this break was just the reset this team needed, and that they can now come back and pull off a miraculous run and sneak into the playoffs... But I’m not that much of an optimist. So, as we head into the new year, let’s focus on the journey and not the score at the end of the game, because at this stage, the results aren’t important. In my experience, that’s easier said than done, but if you can manage to put aside things like the standings and win-loss records and that this is probably going to be the 9th time in 10 seasons that the Devils will miss the playoffs, it’s theoretically possible to watch these games and come away with some optimism for the future. Or, alternatively, an even greater sense of frustration and hopelessness for the future of the organization. Anyway, let’s go searching for something to make the remaining 52 games of the season not a miserable slog to watch, shall we!
Today’s focus is going to be the young centers for the Devils. Fingers crossed, the Devils finally have their top-3 centers healthy and ready to play. Particularly with the two 1st overall picks, it is sometimes tough to remember they are still young. Hischier, the elder-statesman of this group, is only 23 (in about a week), Hughes won’t be old enough to drink until after the season is over, and the rookie Mercer not until early next season.
Devils fans, or at least a contingent of them, have been critical of Hischier for not producing like a 1st overall pick. I can’t completely dismiss these criticisms (with 16 points in 25 games, he is on pace to match his point total of 52 from his rookie season, hardly the totals you expect from a top draft pick), but I would say they are a) not telling the full picture and b) that criticism should be directed at Shero (who made the call to pick Hischier), not the player himself, who had no say when or where he was drafted. Even if he hasn’t had the top scoring numbers you would like from a 1st overall pick, he has turned himself into a very solid player, capable of driving offense and creating chances for himself and his teammates. This season, he has also started to show signs of improvement at the other end of the ice as well. The data below from TopDownHockey lists him at about the 50 percentile which is a large improvement from his previous two seasons. Evolving Hockey also lists both his xDef GAR and defensive GAR as positive for the first time in his career. He has received praise for his defensive ability since his rookie season, but as my predecessor argued, there was somewhat of a disconnect between his reputation and his actual defensive results. Defense is still not a strength of his game, but he’s turning into more of the player fans and analysts expected after his rookie season. Now the question is if he can keep it up and become the 200 foot all-situations player the Devils will likely need him to become in order to turn things around.
A Potential Superstar?
After last seasons breakout season, big things were expected from Jack Hughes, but unfortunately we got just 4 periods of a healthy Hughes before a dislocated shoulder sidelined him for over a month. In those four periods, it looked like he was going to deliver on those high expectations. Not surprisingly Hughes hasn’t looked like the same player upon his return. He’s been very inconsistent, with some great performances and dominant shifts, but other nights where he looked more like the player we saw in his rookie season. Again, I will cite CJ here, who pointed out on twitter that (I’m paraphrasing here) development is not a linear process and thus, some regression this season is not unexpected. But I will add to this that while Hughes is not driving play like he did last season, his shot contributions are still what we saw from him last year. I’d also like to point out that he suffered a major injury and given that he is a professional athlete, I can almost guarantee he wasn’t at 100% when he returned. His inconsistency could potentially be attributed to how his shoulder was feeling on those particular nights. Or, it may have nothing to do with it, but certainly it should be a consideration. After a week without any games, we can see if Hughes is able to hit the reset button and control games the way he did last season. Because if the Devils are going to contend for a playoff spot at any point in the near future they need him to develop into the star he looked like he was on the path to becoming last season. Regardless though, one thing you can count on from Hughes is entertainment, and that in itself is reason enough to tune into his shifts.
Dawson Mercer started the season on a tear. With 14 points in his first 19 games, he was looking like a potential Calder candidate and he certainly stepped up in a big way with Jack Hughes out of the lineup. But he has seriously slowed down in recent weeks. Is he hitting the rookie wall? Is just a rough patch along with the rest of the team? Was he just really hot to start the season or is it something else? This will be the question going forward for Mercer, but we can answer this question at least partially right now. Mercer, despite just 2 goals (and points) in his last 11 games, is shooting at 14%, which is above the average for an NHL forward. He might have a plus shot and some really good hands, but likely he got a bit of good shooting luck to start the season. Thus, we shouldn’t expect him to continue to score at the rate he did for the first 20 or so games. That is some of the explanation, but Todd Cordell, over at Infernal access ($), notes that part of Mercer’s struggles may be due to the removal of Jesper Bratt from his line. Without Bratt, Mercer sees significant drops in CF%, GF%, and xGF%. What does this mean? Well, probably that Mercer is not capable of driving a line by himself right now, which is fine. He’s a rookie, and he’s shown enough individual skill and intelligence that I expect him to be fine down the line. Right now however, it’s in his best interest to play with someone who can buoy him up a little bit. Regardless, I think the future is very bright for Mercer and that he can potentially give the Devils the type of center depth the organization hasn’t seen in a long time.
What do you think of the Devils top-3 centers? Are they good enough to make up a championship team? Will Hughes become the superstar we all hope he can turn into? Can Mercer challenge for a top-6 center spot down the line? Will Hischier continue to improve defensively? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!