One of the easiest questions to answer for the entire Devils’ roster is “Who are the top two centers?” With two first overall picks in Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier positioned for long careers in red and black, it’s clear that the first and second lines will run through those two for the foreseeable future. Hughes and Hischier each have a little more development ahead of them to prove that they are a one-two punch for true contender, but their position in the Devils’ organization right now is undisputed. As far as 2021-22 goes, the Devils have their top two centers figured out.
One of the biggest unanswered questions for the Devils coming out of this offseason, though, is who will center the lines behind Hughes and Hischier. When I wrote about the Devils needs post-Dougie Hamilton signing this summer, I mentioned scoring winger and third line center as the positions Tom Fitzgerald should look to improve on the free agent market. Fitzgerald delivered on the scoring winger, signing one of the best available in Tomas Tatar. The potential hole at third-line center was never really addressed, though, meaning that, barring a surprise trade before the season starts, the Devils will be relying on internal options to be the pivot on their third line.
Are the options they have good enough to fill the role of third-line center, let alone if they are required to fill in a top-six role in the absence of Hughes or Hischier? Many of the Devils’ more highly-regarded prospects on their way up right now are wingers, but things at center remain a little bit thin. As far as this season goes, maybe it can work out with the personnel they already have, but for all the options they’re taking a little bit of a leap of faith that they might be prepared for thrid-line duties, let alone being thrust into a top-six role in the event of an injury. Let’s run through the current options:
Michael McLeod - McLeod has taken a while to find his way into any kind of steady role, given where he was drafted, but he had a fairly solid season centering the fourth line for the Devils in 2020-21. He put up 9 goals and 6 assists in 52 games and finally looked like he belonged on NHL ice after two anonymous-at-best performances he provided in shorter stints the previous two years. His 15% shooting is probably not super sustainable, given his oh-fer in the previous two years, but even if that drops to 10% he’s scoring at a decent enough rate to be a 4th line/PK guy who chips in here and there. Given his PK role last season, he’s more or less a lock for the roster so he figures to be in the mix for a stepped up role this season. I am a bit skeptical that he has the offensive chops to run a top-nine line that can provide true secondary scoring and cause matchup problems though. He’s not much of a distributor of the puck and shooting touch is pretty limited outside of a 10-foot radius around the net. He’s a guy you can maybe live with as a 3C for a little bit in a pinch, but he’s going to have to make another leap to be a reasonable Plan A for the position.
Jesper Boqvist - As it stands, the best bet for bottom two centers on opening night for the Devils is McLeod and Boqvist in some order. Similarly to McLeod, Boqvist has had struggles scoring in his first few go-arounds in the NHL, though he took a small step forward in 2020-21 with his 7 points in 28 games. Boqvist looked a lot more at home playing center this past season as he had previously been tried at wing with limited effectiveness. There were high hopes that Boqvist could be a dynamic factor for the Devils when he signed and came over from Sweden in the 2019 offseason, but like many other things that year, it was a disappointing transition to New Jersey. For what it’s worth, Boqvist has been effective in a couple AHL stints where (in small samples) he’s been a bit more of a prolific scorer than McLeod. He might be my preference to start out the season at 3C over McLeod because of some theoretically untapped potential, but he’s proabably at least as much of a gamble if not a bigger one.
Pavel Zacha - One of my fears for the way the Devils are heading into the season is that if McLeod and/or Boqvist falter as a 3C option, the team will feel obligated to shift Zacha back to the center position where it has never really worked for him in the NHL. Despite the reputation he has based on his solid PK work, Zacha has been a poor defensive player at even strength in the NHL. He has also been far to passive in transition to drive play as a full-time center. He found his offensive groove this year though primarily as a winger, and ideally from now on based on the strengths and weaknesses of his game, that’s where he would stay. If the Devils feel forced to move him back to the middle, I think that is a net loss for the team as he’s much more of a value-add on the wing.
Dawson Mercer - Mercer will be old enough to play in the AHL and not have to return to juniors this season, so Utica is probably the most likely landing spot for him, but after a dominant season in Chicoutimi, he represents a wild card for the Devils heading into camp. Mercer has plenty of talent on the puck, but he is also well-regarded as a versatile two-way center from his time in juniors. The all-around potential in his game means he could have some appeal to Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff as a center if he comes to camp and performs well. If there’s a benefit to the question mark at 3C, it’s that there will be ample opportunity for someone to jump in and seize the opportunity. He is only a year removed from being drafted, but he will also turn 20 early this season, so he’s not overly young for a jump to the NHL. If there is a chance at the Devils getting above-average play from a 3C, Mercer, a guy who was in juniors last year, might honestly be their best shot.
The Rest - Beyond the above options, there aren’t a huge amount of great options for the team, short of converting a winger from elsewhere in the lineup (Yegor Sharangovich has some experience at the position, for example). The other players in the AHL who might conceivably be able to jump into an NHL lineup as a top-nine center on a nightly basis seem pretty limited. Aarne Talvitie looked like he was on his way to being an option a couple years back but things have been rocky for him since and he needs to show a lot more in the AHL. Nate Schnarr could conceivably find his way into the NHL at some point but as a day-one 3C this fall, that seems highly unlikely. Guys like Fabian Zetterlund and Graeme Clarke have a little bit of center experience from past levels but project as wingers if anything in the NHL.
The bottom line is that the Devils have three or four truly realistic options to choose from for their 3C heading into the season and none of them are particularly ideal. Tom Fitzgerald did some fine work upgrading the roster this offseason but the depth chart does reveal a bit of an issue at center beyond their top two. That poses a problem for their bottom six, of course, but the real concern is that this team could be scrambling in a hurry if one of Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier is forced from the lineup for any extended period of time. A best case scenario, to me, is that Mercer comes into camp and wows the staff to earn a spot in the opening night lineup. Barring that, though, the Devils appear content to head into the season with Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod as their third and fourth centers in some order, which could work out fine but is banking on some significant additional growth from one or both of them heading into the season. Given all of that, if I’m looking for something that could pose an obstacle for the Devils returning to the playoff conversation this year, a thin depth chart down the middle has to be near the top of the list.