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The Devils Center Depth Will be Critical for Success this Season

The Devils have had trouble finding four competent centers the last few seasons, but growth from their young talent and the addition of Erik Haula changes things for them in a significant way this season.

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New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Devils have strengthened their roster at seemingly every position this offseason, from adding a competent netminder to split time with Blackwood, to adding to the addition of winger Ondrej Palat and defenseman John Marino. But the center position looks to be their deepest position for the 2022-23 NHL season. This is particularly true after trading for Erik Haula this offseason. New Jersey now looks particularly stacked both in terms of high-end talent and depth. If the one-two punch of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier can stay healthy for most of this season (not off to a great start) I believe they’ll be among the best in the league down the middle.

Let’s begin with the high-end part of this equation. Last season, Jack Hughes was a top 50 forward in terms of expected goals above replacement with a value of 14.2 by Evolving Hockey’s model. That’s despite him missing over 30 games. Nico Hischier landed at 101 with a total of 9.2 xGAR. Given that there are, by definition 96 first line forwards in the league, Hughes likely would’ve been one of the most valuable forwards in the league last season if he had stayed healthy, while Hischier performed as a high-end second line forward. So if Hischier continues to improve, and at 23 he’s still at an age where projecting further improvement is reasonable, the Devils should have two first line centers this season, and one of them likely elite. Interestingly, the opinion among people in NHL circles seems to be a lot higher on Nico than the models. When the Athletic put out their top 100 player list, Hischier finished in the 4B tier, which, while near the bottom of the list, is still comfortably inside the top 100. Yet, by Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, the Devils captain isn’t valued particularly high, and neither is Hughes thanks to an underwhelming rookie season. So it isn’t all sunshines and rainbows. That said, I’m comfortable going with the biased homer take and focusing on the data that says my favorite team is good. At least in this situation.

That’s much better.

After Hughes and Hischier we come to the aforementioned Erik Haula. Haula, who came over to New Jersey in the Pavel Zacha trade, has had a pretty up and down career in terms of points production, with his 18 goals and 44 points with Boston last season being the most he’s had since the 17-18 season as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights inaugural team. However, a large part of this is that last season was his first time playing over 70 games since the 17-18 season, so it’s reasonable to expect he would’ve been productive if he had stayed in the line-up more often. While Haula hasn’t been much of a play-driver outside of his time with Vegas and Carolina, he’s by no means a black-hole in this department and was at nearly 53% in CF% as recently as last season. Thanks to strong 5 on 5 play, particularly on offense, Haula was worth 5.5 expected goals above replacement last season (via Evolving Hockey). I’m not expecting him to repeat last season’s results in New Jersey this year, but anything close to this would be a huge win in my books. The Devils have struggled with finding a consistent and capable third line center in the last few years and Haula gives them a clear answer to this position.

Haula’s presence also gives the Devils time to figure out where they want Mercer to fit long-term. Mercer started last year at the center position before eventually being moved to RW alongside Jack Hughes. While he probably wasn’t ready to center a line as a 20 year-old rookie, as demonstrated by his team worst (among skaters who played at least 200 minutes) -1.8 xGAR, he could certainly grow into this role if given the time and repetitions. Much of that negative value was driven by poor defensive play, which is a common issue for young, highly talented players. If they stay on a line together, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see him and Haula interchanged between the center and wing positions this season, even if Haula takes most of the important face-offs. And since injuries are a thing, I expect that Mercer will end up spending significant time at both RW and center on various lines. This is where we start to see the importance of the added depth for a team that should finally be past the rebuilding phase. Instead of trying and failing to make Zacha a center for the 20th year in-a-row and then being left without a back-up plan, they can ease Mercer into this position as he demonstrates competence. Or in the event of an injury, they can give Jesper Boqvist, who performed admirably in the 3C role down the stretch another go at this position. The point is that the Devils have the flexibility to experiment with different option without being left out to dry if things don’t work out.

Speaking of Boqvist, while he left a positive impression with by far the best play of his young career down the stretch last season, he didn’t exactly light the world on fire. I also haven’t seen much from him in training camp so far, but I don’t think he’s really been put into positions to succeed. Whether that’s due to his performance in camp or Haula’s presence pushing him further down the line-up is unclear. If Boqvist makes the team, which is admittedly not a guarantee at this point, he will provide even further depth and another option in case of injury or poor performance. And if the Devils realize they no longer need McLeod to win face-offs, then perhaps he even replaces him on the fourth line since he offers more skill and flexibility in terms of where he can be slotted in the line-up than the 2016 1st rounder.

There are a number of things that have me excited for Devils hockey this season. Between an improved defense, promising signs of a rebound from Blackwood, and the abundance of young high-end talent the Devils have accumulated, there’s good reason to be optimistic. A big portion of this talent is down the middle, and between the potential dominance of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, the potential growth of Dawson Mercer and to a lesser extent Jesper Boqvist, and the addition of Haula to solidify the third line center position, the Devils are flush with talent at the sport’s second most important position.