While this year has been so disappointing in so many ways, one of the real positives that broke through early on was the emergence of Dawson Mercer and his ability to play successfully in the NHL for the New Jersey Devils at his young age. Of course, the Devils burned a year of his ELC and rightfully so, but with that comes the responsibility of ensuring that he is growing and developing successfully at this level as opposed to in the AHL or even the Q. And with the Devils being so bad this year, especially since the start of November, it is right to question how successful the team has been in terms of his development. And with the season being sunk, the development and progress of guys like Mercer is now priority #1.
First off, we can just look at how Mercer has done in terms of his scoring. Across 48 games played, he has produced 25 points, with 10 goals and 15 assists. He is running at a little over a half point per game clip, which for a 20 year old rookie really is not terrible. He is not a point producing machine at this point, although that is clearly something that can be in his future given his stats in the Q previously. But as a kid in the best league in the world, in his rookie year, you cannot be upset about that scoring pace in my opinion.
Of course, however, we know that there is way more nuance when analyzing a season than to just look at point production. How has he been doing more recently as opposed to the start of the year? How is his possession game, special teams game, and other aspects like turnovers, penalties, and whatnot. To me, most importantly, I want to see how he has done more recently as opposed to early on. In October, the Devils were actually not a bad team and he was buoyed by an excellent line that was dominant on the ice for many games there. But since the team has fallen off a cliff, what about him? This would give us an indication of how the Devils themselves are helping or hindering his growth as a player.
Early on, Lindy Ruff and Co. set Mercer in between Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson, and I know it is hard to remember now, but man they were pretty awesome together. That line was electric on the ice for many nights, and it was fun to watch. Mercer benefited greatly from a cohesive line that dominated in possession and gave him many opportunities to both assist and produce goals. His growth and development was something to behold. Since then, lines have been shifted around numerous times, and as they have changed, so too has Mercer’s production. Coming out of the extended Christmas Break, Bratt was swapped out of that line for Janne Kuokkanen. It was not all that ideal, as even in a 4-3 win against Buffalo, that line was the worst for NJ in terms of relative Corsi. They were struggling to tilt the ice against a team that, on paper at least, was an inferior opponent. Fast forward a couple of more weeks, to the middle of January, and now Mercer is centering Johnsson and Jesper Boqvist in a game against the Isles. Once again, that line was worst on the team in terms of relative Corsi by a pretty large amount, getting crushed by the opposition while on the ice, so things were obviously not going well.
Finally, we get to Thursday night, when the Devils managed a touchdown against a pretty good St. Louis team, and Mercer was still on the same line, but with time to create chemistry with Boqvist, things had turned around, with a +4.08 relative Corsi in the win. Given time to gel with the new winger has worked over the last few weeks.
When you look at his numbers overall, we are seeing a player that is averaging 13 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game, good for 5th among forwards. And with that time, he has managed a 50.62 CF%, ranked 8th among forwards with at least 200 5v5 minutes. He has the 3rd best GF% among that same group at 47.76%, although he drops to 6th in xGF% at 51.69%. He is weaker among the forwards in high danger numbers, ranking 9th in HDCF% at 55.19%, and this all comes with being the 3rd most sheltered forward with a OZFO% sitting at 60.12%.
Overall, those numbers are solid, in fact you might say even better than that for a 20 year old rookie drafted in the back half of the first round a couple of years ago. But what it seems like he needs most, and responds best to, is consistent linemates. Having Johnsson with him most of the year has definitely been a benefit, as they have developed a rapport together, with a quality 50.64 CF% when together, which has been for over 430 5v5 minutes. But the other linemate has been all over the place. He has just over 200 5v5 minutes with Bratt, and that was the best option for him, as they have a great 53.69 CF% when together, and Mercer only has a 49.36 CF% without him. He then has 164 minutes with Tomas Tatar, almost 94 minutes with Janne Kuokkanen, and 44 minutes with Boqvist, who I mentioned above as having played together recently.
Now, I understand that in a year when injuries occur and the staff is looking to mix things up to spark success, it is unlikely that a player will have the same linemates throughout. However, they managed it successfully with Mercer and Johnsson this whole season, and that has been a boon. I hope that moving forward, they can land on a second guy, and for Mercer’s sake, it would be great if it were Bratt. The two played very well together early on, and Bratt has just been awesome this season, so having him with Mercer can only help to develop him more this season as opposed to someone like Boqvist who is also trying to develop into an NHLer himself. In a lost year where developing talent is paramount, there are not many people who are more important to NJ’s future on offense than Mercer right now, so it is vital that they do whatever they can to help him develop despite the poor team around him. Let’s hope they realize that and give him the consistency he needs to grow into a star.