Maybe the title is just one writer’s opinion, but from looking at where the New Jersey Devils have holes to fill in the opening night roster, and the personnel available, I don’t think the title is hyperbole. Dawson Mercer has been one of, if not the Devils’ prospect who has been developing the best since he was drafted in 2020 even with hockey being impacted last season. With just 23 games played to due a shortened schedule, Mercer still put up 36 points in the QMJHL and 17 more in just 9 playoff games.
So why does Mercer have a good chance to make the team; is it the skills he’s shown so far? Is it because the Devils are currently fostering and growing a young core at the NHL level? Is it because he fills a position of need (3C) with no other clear frontrunner for the job? Honestly, from my perspective, it’s probably a combination of all of the above, but let’s take a slightly deeper dive into why I feel Mercer might beat out some of the others who could be competing for a similar role.
For the role of 3C (or perhaps 4C if the Devils want to try Michael McLeod at 3C), from the training camp roster, I think only a few of the names on the list will be looking for a similar position as Mercer. Those would be Jesper Boqvist, Tyce Thompson, Nate Schnarr, Fabian Zetterlund and PTO players Freddy Gauthier and Mark Jankowski. While there are other talented youngsters that may or may not make the roster, I think this is the subset we are looking at when it comes to the Bottom 6 Center slot.
And Their Chances
If the Devils don’t feel any of the kids on the list are ready, I could see them signing one of the PTO players to be an every night guy for this season. This would give the younger players some insulation to grow while playing every night in Utica. From what is known of both of the PTOs centers however, I think it is more likely that they are here to get a look and some preseason games, where more bodies are always needed. Maybe the Devils wind up offering an AHL deal to one or both, but the only way I see Gauthier or Jankowski with the big club is if the win a spot as one of the “healthy scratch/not every game” forwards.
Of the young players, Zetterlund and Schnarr might be the biggest competition for Mercer, but I feel that’s more if the Devils see McLeod as the 3C and are in need of a 4C. Zetterlund had a decent AHL season last year (19 points in 34 games) but seems to be deployed more for his defense, as his placement in the prospect challenge lineup indicated. Schnarr had a good showing at the prospect challenge, as well as a decent AHL season in 2021 and brings some size to the table as well. He’s another player that with a good training camp could find himself in New Jersey rather than Utica, at least to start 2021-22.
In terms of Thompson, I could see him making a push, but only if he has a very impressive training camp. I don’t think anyone was blown away in his NHL time last season, and he didn’t perform as well as some of the others in the AHL either. Also working against him is that he seems to be deployed more often as a wing.
Jesper Boqvist is the biggest conundrum to me; while he’s still very young, he already has a good chunk of NHL time under his belt, but hasn’t shown much at that level. I would say at this point that it is entirely possible he winds up being another rushed prospect that does not pan out due to him being thrust into the NHL too soon. This training camp will be very interesting for him, as it could be a make or break situation. At the same time, Boqvist’s tale should be a cautionary one for the Devils, because if the feel the path he was put on to develop was a mistake, then they shouldn’t want to repeat that with Mercer.
As for Mercer
If they have learned from this (and if they do consider it a mistake) then one of the others fighting for this spot should get it. If they think Mercer is ready however, I think he has the best toolset to fill the role needed. He can bring some offense and defense to the table, which is ideally what you would want from someone playing in your 3C spot. He also appears to have some good speed from watching him in the prospect challenge, which is the type of game the Devils have played in recent years.
Mercer did not have a great first game at the prospect challenge (no one from the Devils really did) but he and his line were spectacular during the second game. Dawson may need to ride the momentum from that game into camp to prove he belongs with the big club. If he can do that, he would enter a situation where he would be insulated by Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes above him, meaning he wouldn’t necessarily be in the high pressure situations right off the bat. Pavel Zacha is also another experienced option that can play the center slot, so again Mercer wouldn’t have to be thrown in the deep end even if there are injuries or other situations.
My prediction? Mercer impresses in camp, looks like he belongs, and gets the 3C spot to start the season.
Do you think Dawson Mercer wins the battle for 3C this year for the Devils now that we have a look at who his potential competition might be? Do you think it goes to one of the PTOs or other young players? Is there anyone else in camp that I did not discuss who you think has a shot at that slot? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!