Coming into this season, Alexander Holtz was a player seen as someone who could potentially make the leap and gain their footing in the NHL, serving as an important scoring threat on a team that is middling at best in terms of finishing potential. Holtz, the seventh overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, couldn’t stay in the NHL last season after coming over to North America, but had himself a very strong first professional season in the AHL as a 19/20 year old, putting up 26 goals and 51 points in 52 games, finishing as Utica’s top goal-scorer and one of the main engines of their offense. With not a ton left to prove at the AHL level after that rookie campaign, it made sense to expect that Holtz would move up to the NHL squad in 2022-23, especially with the Devils not adding much in the way of finishing talent in the 2022 offseason.
After a pretty strong preseason, things appeared to be on track for Holtz, as he earned himself a spot in the opening night lineup for the big club. Holtz could be a finisher for one of the Devils top centers and a weapon on the power play for a team that needs them. After five games, though, Holtz finds himself in limbo, currently one of the odd forwards out (with his fellow Swedes, Fabian Zetterlund and Jesper Boqvist) in the Devils current 11F/7D setup that they have run with the last couple games. Despite showing some promising improvement as a skater and scoring his first career goal in the season’s first game, Holtz quickly found himself on the outside looking in on the lineup sheet.
Lindy Ruff’s explanations for limiting Holtz in the games he’s played was first that he was shortening his lineup to get the veterans as much ice time as possible, and then for scratching him, Ruff was concerned about maximizing speed in the lineup. In a vacuum, the decisions are theoretically defensible from a coaching perspective, if maybe a bit short-sighted when we’re 5% of the way through an 82-game campaign. One of the primary concerns about Holtz is his skating and his pace at the NHL level, which aligns with Ruff’s explanation for his lineup decisions, but it’s tough to argue that Holtz has looked lost or overmatched in the minutes he has seen this season at 5v5, with the Devils having over 71% of the expected goals with him on the ice. Even with favorable zone starts, that’s not a “we need to get this guy out of the lineup” type of number.
In truth, it doesn’t seem like Holtz has gotten much of a fair shake so far this season, as he only has a little under 24 minutes of total 5v5 time in three appearances. In terms of linemates, he has yet to spend more than nine minutes with any linemate at 5v5, as he has been bounced around the lineup and had his ice time limited in general. I know you can’t just force feed minutes to a player who can’t handle them and expect results, but the evidence so far this season does not show a player who seems overmatched.
On the power play in particular, Holtz has performed in a way that would seem to bring significant value to an NHL lineup. Despite having the 11th most minutes on the team with the man advantage (4:49 total), Holtz leads the team in unblocked attempts, shots on goal, and individual expected goals on the power play. Holtz also has one of the team’s two total goals in that game state through five games. Even though it is a vanishingly small sample, Holtz has made relative hay out of his minutes on the power play and looks like the kind of producer the team can use there with their meager 2-for-15 PP conversion rate to open the season.
Holtz is the type of player who is theoretically going to thrive as the finisher on a line that can generate chances for him to use his high-end shot, so it’s possible the Devils just don’t see a spot for him on the top two lines with those two units seemingly clicking at 5v5. If the Devils see no upside in giving Holtz bottom-six minutes but also do not see a place for him in the top six, it’s tough to figure out what exactly he’s doing here in New Jersey. I’m sure there is some value to practicing with NHL players and learning from veterans at the big club and I also don’t know how much more he needs to show in the AHL, but it seems a waste to have a 20-year-old top prospect in the NHL if there is no intention to give him real minutes.
Given the way the season opened, perhaps Ruff feels that he is coaching for his job, so is sticking with what is more comfortable, and with the Devils now reeling off some wins, the team is unlikely to rock the boat in pursuit of letting a prospect figure things out on the fly, with an eye on a future payoff for the team. I’d argue that Holtz is doing enough at 5v5 to justify a spot on in the lineup, given his potential to make the Devils power play much more dangerous. If the team doesn’t see things that way, though, they should just go ahead and send him back down to Utica until they think there is a spot here for him so he can actually get minutes on the ice at game speed.
A couple practices and a handful of morning skates a week, which is the kind of exposure he will get as a healthy scratch during the NHL regular season schedule, is unlikely to pay huge dividends development-wise at his age. If that is the status quo at this point, I don’t think the NHL is the place for him. Tell him the things he needs to work on to nail down a spot on this roster, then send him to the Comets where he can work things out against real competition. With him being waiver exempt, he is an easy player to move up and down (unlike Zetterlund, who warrants a post of his own on this topic) and while he did perform very well in Utica last season, I’m sure there’s room for him to prove he can be even more dominant at that level. If the Devils don’t want to play him in the NHL, they should come up with a better plan than “let him eat some chicken fingers in the scratch suite,” for how they plan to foster his development.