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Checking In On Nikola Pasic and Alexander Holtz

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The New Jersey Devils haven’t been shy about drafting Swedish players in recent years. In Nikola Pasic and Alexander Holtz, they have two skilled forwards that have plenty of experience in the Swedish top flight, the Swedish Hockey League. In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at how they are developing.

Sweden v Czech Republic: Preliminary Round Group B - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
Alexander Holtz is one of the best goal scoring prospects outside of the NHL. Will he take a big step and produce in New Jersey in 2021-22?
Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Since 2016, the New Jersey Devils have drafted six players out of Sweden. The most notable is Jesper Bratt who was a 6th round selection in the 2016 draft. The wing has already appeared in 231 NHL games for the Devils and has put up 44 goals and 86 assists for 130 points in that span. The Devils are still waiting for their next Swedish prospect to make an impact in New Jersey. In 2017 they selected forwards Jesper Boqvist and Fabian Zetterlund in the 2nd and 3rd rounds respectively. Boqvist has split time between the NHL and AHL for New Jersey, putting up 8 goals and 3 assists for 11 points in 63 games across parts of three seasons. Zetterlund has spent the past two seasons in the AHL with an increase in production last season. He seems to be poised to compete for a 4th line spot in training camp due to his high-intensity, physical style. Most recently, the Devils have drafted forwards Nikola Pasic and Alexander Holtz in 2019 and 2020 respectively, as well as defenseman Viktor Hurtig in 2021. In today’s post, we’ll focus on Pasic and Holtz as we check in how their development is coming along and what their future could hold.

I’m going to make use of a few resources for this post. The first is, Better Than A Monkey, which provides Swedish Hockey League (SHL) advanced stats and visualizations. I’m also going to consult a few projection models such as Hockey Prospecting and Top Down Hockey (via JFreshHockey’s prospect cards). You can support Better Than A Monkey here, Hockey prospecting here, and JFreshHockey here. Now on to Pasic and Holtz.

C/LW Nikola Pasic (Linköping HC)

The Devils drafted the skilled Pasic in the 7th round of the 2019 Draft. The 5’10, 187 lbs. left-handed shooting forward came up through the Linköping HC system. As we can see from his Elite Prospects profile, Pasic earned plenty of praise in his draft year. McKeen’s Hockey wrote, “He has a quick release on his wrist shot and is dangerous when shooting while moving at his top speed.” Hockey Prospect wrote, “Pasic is a dangler, where he uses his stickhandling to dazzle opponents and gets around them using fast hands and great balance.” Future Considerations wrote, “His excellent vision and passing skills bode well for his teammates and he is great at making plays happen.”

Pasic made his SHL debut with 3 games for Linköping HC in his pre-draft season of 2017-18. He split his draft season of 2018-19 between the SHL, Allsvenskan (Swedish 2nd tier), and J20 SuperElit league (juniors). In the junior league he had a strong season with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points in 33 regular season games. His 1.09 points per game rate was 2nd among all draft eligibles (min. 25 games) and would’ve been first among players with more than 25 games played. In limited time in the SHL he had a goal and an assist in 15 games. He had a short two game loan to BIK Karlskoga in the Allsvenskan which resulted in an assist.

The 2019-20 season would see Pasic move to BIK Karlskoga for a season in the Allsvenskan. This move was ideal for him as he had shown himself to be above the level of play in juniors but needed an easier level than the SHL to adjust to professional hockey. In his first full professional season, Pasic excelled with 8 goals and 27 assists for 35 points in 45 games. That was good enough to finish 7th on his team in scoring and 1st among all U20 players in the Swedish 2nd tier. His 0.78 points per game would rank 4th among U20 players with at least 40 games played over the past 10 Allsvenskan seasons, trailing the likes of William Karlsson (0.98 in 2011-12), Jonathan Dahlen (0.98 in 2016-17), and Elias Pettersson (0.95 in 2016-17). Now there is quite a bit of gap between Pasic and that group from a skills and stats perspective, along with some cherry picking on the stats, but essentially he proved that he belonged as a professional that season. Pasic also had an assist in 7 games at the U20 World Junior Championship (WJC) as Sweden took home Bronze.

Pasic went into the 2020-21 season with a lot of momentum. His impressive play in the Allsvenskan helped him secure a contract extension with Linköping HC in October. Overall, Pasic would finish the season with 7 goals and 8 assists for 15 points in 52 regular season games. He shot at 12.5%, averaged 1.08 shots per game, and 12:56 in ice time per game. Linköping HC finished 12th out of the 14 team league, narrowly avoiding the relegation playoffs. Pasic finished 9th on his team in scoring and 15th among U21 players in the SHL.

Thanks to Better Than A Monkey, we can take a closer look at Pasic’s 2020-21 season. On the third page of his player card, we can see his heat maps for both even strength and power play. At even strength he scored all 7 of his goals and had 86 shot attempts. He managed to get 48.84% of his shots on goal with 40.69% of his shots either being blocked or going wide. It seems he likes to get down low in front of the crease or hang out by the faceoff dot on the left side. In his limited power play time, it seems that to utilize his shot, they had him invert himself to the right faceoff circle.

Graphic and Data via https://www.betterthanamonkey.com
Graphic and Data via https://www.betterthanamonkey.com

On the fourth page of his player card, we can see his possession and rate stats. These include the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons though given his limited ice time, we can’t take too much away from them.

Graphic and Data via https://www.betterthanamonkey.com

For the 2020-21 season, we can see Pasic struggled to drive play when on the ice for his team. On the Team Corsi graph, I noticed that he was firmly in the “Bad” quadrant. It was interesting to see on the Corsi Over Time graph that he was all over the place before his Corsi plummeted in the final month of the season. It’s not too surprising to see a young player on a bad team end up struggling down the stretch no matter the league. In terms of PDO he was in the “Goals for Everyone” quadrant as he had one of the highest On-Ice Shooting Percentages coupled with the lowest On-Ice Save Percentage. Among the 10 forwards on the team with at least 400 minutes, Pasic’s 1.50 EV Points per 60 minutes ranked 5th. His EV Goals per 60 minutes of 0.70 ranked 4th while his EV Assists per 60 minutes ranked 7th. All of this seems to point to Pasic being a skilled, young player that has plenty of offensive talent but needs to improve his defensive game.

Now let’s see how the various public projection models view Pasic’s NHL prospects:

Graphic and Data via hockeyprospecting.com/
Data via Top Down Hockey and Graphic via JFreshHockey

Now, no projection model is perfect and they aren’t everything, but I do think they can provide a decent level measuring stick for prospects. One thing that I’ve noticed in general, is that the Hockey Prospecting model tends to be a bit more optimistic than the Top Down model. Not all the time, of course, but more often than not. Hockey Prospecting has seen Pasic’s NHL probability rise during his strong post draft season in the Allsvenskan but then come down to it’s lowest point after a tough 2020-21 season in the SHL. His Star Probability has consistently fallen. Still, as of now, the model gives him a 3% Star Probability and 40% NHLer Probability. The Top Down model also reflects Pasic’s up and down trajectory in the NHLe graph. Overall, this model only gives him a 2% Star Probability and 8% NHLer Probability.

The truth is probably somewhere between these models though I lean more towards the Hockey Prospecting one. I think with Pasic’s skills, if he can rebound by improving his production and defensive output for Linköping HC this upcoming season, then he’ll take a big step forward. I wouldn’t expect his potential to be above that of a middle six forward at the NHL level, and he’s far from a sure thing to realize that potential, but I’m not ready to count him out. After all, the 2021-22 season will be just his age 21 season as he has a mid-October birthday. The Devils currently hold his rights until June 1, 2023 and he’s signed with Linköping HC through the 2022-23 season. Clearly the Swedish club is committed to him and the Devils can afford to be patient with Pasic’s development for another two seasons in Sweden. He remains one of my darkhorse prospects to eventually make an impact in New Jersey.

RW Alexander Holtz (Djurgårdens IF)

The Devils drafted the pure goal scorer with the 7th overall pick in the 2020 Draft. The 6’0”, 194 lbs. right wing is a product of the Djurgårdens IF system. Prior to the draft, Elite Prospects had this to say about Holtz:

His shot is as good as it gets, and it makes him a threat to score from anywhere in the offensive zone. Holtz is a pure sniper as currently constructed, and he has the potential to be a first-line finisher with triggerman utility on the power play. He’s a special, special talent, and if he can refine that talent, then there’s no telling where it might take him.

Considering the Devils are set with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier as their top 2 centers for year’s to come, it’s easy to see why they would target a goal scoring winger like Holtz. The Swedish prospect exceled in the J20 SuperElit league with 30 goals and 17 assists for 47 points in 38 games in his pre-draft year in 2018-19. Those 30 goals led the entire league. He also made his SHL debut with 3 games for the senior team. Holtz also starred for Sweden’s U17 and U18 teams across various competitions, winning a Gold Medal at the U18 WJC, a Bronze Medal at the U17 WHC, and a Silver Medal at the Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

In his draft season of 2019-20, Holtz transitioned to a near full time role with the senior team. He did play in 3 junior games but wasn’t challenged as he put up 7 goals and 2 assists for 9 points in that span. He played 35 games for the senior team in the SHL, putting up 9 goals and 7 assists for 16 points. He led U19 players in the SHL in goals and was tied for the lead in points. At the U20 WJC, Holtz had 3 goals and 2 assists for 5 points in 7 games as Sweden earned Bronze.

The 2020-21 season would prove to be a tough, up and down year for Holtz with the high expectations that come with him as a prospect. Overall, he played in 40 games for Djurgårdens IF with 7 goals and 11 assists for 18 points. He saw his ice time increase from 12:53 in 2019-20 to 14:06 in 2020-21. He went from shooting at 16.36% in 2019-20 to 7.95% in 2020-21. He did increase his shots per game rate from 1.57 in 2019-20 to 2.20 in 2020-21. Holtz also represented Sweden at the U20 WJC but struggled to produce to his standards with a goal and 2 assists for 3 points as they took home Bronze. While Holtz had a tough season after linemate, Jacob Josefson, went down in mid-November, and then a post-WJC injury, he did eventually return to form with 2 goals and 2 assists for 4 points in 3 playoff games.

On the surface it looks like Holtz had some good puck luck in 2019-20 and some bad puck luck in 2020-21 but thanks to Better Than a Monkey, we can take a closer look at his time in the SHL.

Graphics and Data via https://www.betterthanamonkey.com
Graphics and Data via https://www.betterthanamonkey.com

On his player card, we can see a heatmap of where Holtz generates his shots. Comparing the 2019-20 even strength one (top) to the 2020-21 one (bottom), it’s apparent that Holtz drifted across the ice in the offensive zone last season. In 2019-20, he kept to the right side of the ice. In 2020-21 he certainly made more of an effort to occupy the slot directly in front of the goal and also utilize the left side of the ice at even strength. Typically, as you can see from his power play heatmaps above, he utilizes the left side of the ice when his team is up on the man advantage. I find it encouraging to see him take up some more dangerous positions in the offensive zone, even if the results weren’t always there this season. In terms of how his shot performances differed season to season, Holtz got more shots on goal by percentage when on the right side of the ice and saw less shots go wide.

We can also see Holtz’s possession and advanced stats. He had a Corsi For% greater than 50% in both of his full SHL seasons though had slightly better results in 2020-21. While his EV Goals per 60 Minutes rate was down last year, his EV Assists per 60 Minutes was up. It was interesting to see his Game Score per Game up in 2020-21 as well. Even when his shots weren’t going in, it seems that Holtz was doing enough to support his teammates and create scoring chances for them.

Looking over the Djurgårdens IF team graphs, including players that played at least 400 minutes, Holtz’s Corsi For% 12th out of 18 skaters. That was still enough to place him in the “Good” quadrant on the team graph. Moving on to EV Points per 60 Minutes, Holtz’s 1.82 rate ranked 6th among the 12 forwards that played at least 400 minutes. When it comes to PDO, Holtz is another prospect that fell into the “Goals for Everybody” category. He had the 3rd highest On-Ice SH% on the team but the 13th (out of 18) On-Ice SV%.

Here is how the projection models view Holtz:

Graphic and Data via hockeyprospecting.com/
Data via Top Down Hockey and Graphic via JFreshHockey

Holtz’s Star Probability fell in the Hockey Prospecting model from 32% to 23%. I wouldn’t worry too much as he can easily rebound from what was a “down” season (by the lofty expectations for him) in the SHL last year. He battled a back injury post-WJC which certainly didn’t help his stats. On a more positive note, the model still sees him as a likely NHLer with a respectable 65% NHLer Probability.

The Top Down Hockey model likes Holtz quite a bit. His Star Probability is 14th in their model and his NHLer Probabilty of 82% is 38th in the model. I think it’s safe to say that Holtz will be a NHLer, it’s just a matter of how much of an imapct player he can be. Skating alongside Hughes or Hischier, I tend to lean more towards the Star category for him.

Holtz is already signed to his entry-level contract with the Devils that starts with the 2021-22 season. During last season, I thought a return to Djurgårdens IF for another season of SHL hockey could be beneficial for him. While that option still remains on the table, I have a feeling he will either be in New Jersey or split time between New Jersey and Utica. When his SHL season ended last year, the Devils were quick to bring him to Binghamton to have him adjust to the North American game in the AHL. That seems to suggests that the organization would prefer to have a closer eye and role in his development from this point forward. With all of that said, I think Holtz will get his first taste of NHL hockey in 2021-22 and if he isn’t a full timer this season, then I would expect him to be for 2022-23. Despite not having the best stats last season, I think he did a lot of good things from a possession standpoint, he improved his assists rate, improved his impact on games as evidenced by his game score, and was able to utilize more ice in the offensive zone to get into dangerous positions. He seems like the type of player that is poised for a breakout alongside Hughes or Hischier within the next few seasons.

Your Take

How do you feel about the development of Nikola Pasic and Alexander Holtz? What do you expect out of these players in the 2021-22 season? What do you expect out of these players in their careers? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!