Throughout training camp so far, the coaching staff for the New Jersey Devils has made sure to keep the line of Jack Hughes - Ondrej Palat - Alexander Holtz together and has let them find a connection. And for the most part, they have looked good together, turning heads and gelling like they have been a line for a lot longer than a couple of weeks. For Hughes and Palat, this makes a lot of sense. Hughes is the best center on this team and is going to get top line minutes. Palat has been a top-6 guy for Stanley Cup-winning teams in Tampa, and he knows what it takes to play at that level with that level of talent. You might want someone who scores more on that top line, but he has done his part when in that role, so the reasoning is solid.
The one that is completely new to this, and has really barely played at all in the NHL outside of some games here and there, is Holtz. If he gets regular playing time this season for NJ, it would be considered his rookie season, and it would count as the first year of his Entry Level Contract. Yet instead of putting someone like Tomas Tatar or Yegor Sharangovitch on this line to start, players that know a top-6 role and have played it successfully at times in the past, they are throwing Holtz there. If this line stays the same into the start of the regular season, it would mean that instead of sheltering his starts and playing him against worse competition, they are planning to throw him out there for tough, top line minutes. It would be with awesome teammates, especially Jack who would help him get better, but it would be against the opposition’s top defense more often than not. To me, this is super interesting and says a few things about what the coaching staff wants and what they potentially see for Holtz as soon as this year if he can step up his game and adjust to the NHL level.
The cool thing is that we have a very recent and relevant example to determine what would be successful for Holtz and what could keep him in a top-6 role on a Hughes-Palat-Holtz line for more than just a few games before burning a year of his ELC. Last year, Dawson Mercer was in a similar position, and he managed to not only keep a roster spot but to cement himself on this roster as someone who could be a part of this young core for a long time. While Mercer will most likely transition to a 3rd-line center role behind Hughes and Hischier, last season he spent a good amount of time in the top-6 as a winger alongside Hughes. According to Left Wing Lock, the line that spent the most ice time together for NJ last season was the line of Hughes-Sharangovitch-Mercer, who was out there for 4.9% of all NJ ice time. This season, with Mercer most likely moving to a more solidified center position (which he also did last year, as he was on the line of Bratt-Mercer-Johnsson which took up 4.6% of all NJ ice time), it will open the door for someone like Holtz to capitalize.
Overall, last season Mercer ended with 42 points in 82 games, 17 goals, and 25 assists. When he was with Hughes on the top-6, they had a combined Corsi of 51.23% across 260 minutes of 5v5. And perhaps more importantly, they had a GF% together of 47.5%, and both had lower percentages when separated from each other. Their xGF% together was better at 50.96%, and they were excellent at high danger with a 55.56 HDCF% and HDGF%. What this all says is that when Mercer was playing a top-6 role alongside Hughes, they were working well together and they were successful against tough competition. Hughes’ numbers were not significantly better without Mercer either, with slight jumps in some of those numbers when away, but not by much. They were good together, and it kept Mercer around made it worth it to burn a year of his ELC.
If Holtz wants to end up as a regular for the Devils on that line, he will need to repeat a lot of that success that Mercer had. Holtz’s main billing is as a scorer, so if he is going to get lots of ice time with Hughes and Palat, he will need to replicate Mercer’s 0.5 points per game at a minimum, but will more likely need to improve goal scoring, even if assists take a dip. That is a lot to ask a rookie, as it would mean he would need to score 20 goals this year as a 20 year old, something not too many players do, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Beyond that, he will need to show that he isn’t dragging down the top line, or that he is not being carried by Hughes and Palat. The WOWY numbers will tell a lot there. If Hughes is a 53% Corsi guy when Holtz isn’t there, but a 49% guy when he is, that will get him demoted fairly quickly, even if he does manage some goals. That’s just one example, and what happens with things like GF% will also play a part.
In the end, Holtz might manage to secure himself a spot this year. What this line combo from training camp and preseason tells us is that the coaching staff wants Holtz to succeed and wants him to play in the NHL this season. They don’t want to instantly write him off to the AHL, or just throw him in a bottom-6, sheltered role against weaker competition. They are looking for him to cash in on that #7 draft position the Devils spent on him a couple of years ago, and they are willing to give him a chance to make it work at the highest level, alongside the best this team has to offer. If he struggles with that, they could justify giving him another year to grow in the AHL while putting someone like Tatar back up there to try and regain some of what he lost last year. But if they had it their way, it seems they want Holtz to take that next step and start to join the young forward core of Hischier, Hughes, Mercer, and Bratt. Throw a good Holtz in there as well, one that reaches the success that was expected of him when drafted, and now this group would really be cooking for quite some time.