As we wrap up what has been another unsuccessful season by the Devils, it’s worth emphasizing just how weird this season has been. Mike touched on this on Friday, but normally bad teams don’t have multiple players having career seasons. Sure a player or two might have a great year on a bad team, but when your top 3 forwards and 2 of your top-4 defensemen all have career years, and you still finish in the bottom of the standings, well, a lot had to go poorly. But it gets weirder. In the midst of outstanding seasons by Hughes, Bratt, and Hischier and a breakout season by Jonas Siegenthaler, somehow 20 year-old rookie Dawson Mercer has had a very quiet 41 points in 76 games, ensuring he will finish the season with at least 0.5 pt/gm.
In any other season in recent memory, Mercer’s season would be one of the biggest stories of the year. A 20 year-old rookie center finishing the year with over 40 points without playing a game in the minors? Imagine him showing up in the Jacob Josefson, Matthias Tedenby era? But in this chocolate-poop tornado of a season, it seems like more of a footnote. Even though his production has cooled off after a hot start to the year, Mercer looks to be a big piece of the Devils young forward group in the coming seasons, and his success shouldn’t go unnoticed.
To put Mercer’s season into perspective, let’s look at how it compares to similar players. Since the 04-05 lockout, there have been 120 skaters to have at least 41 points in their rookie season. If you narrow it down to players who were 20 or younger at the time, this number is cut down to just 59 players over the last 17 years (on a completely unrelated note, does anyone know of a place that allows you to filter this type of info without a paywall? Used to be easy to do from Hockeyreference). As you can probably imagine, this is a pretty prestigious list to be a member of, with the overwhelming majority of the players having panned out (or projecting) to be at worst top-6 forwards (at least at their peak) or top 4 defensemen. I freely admit filtering this list like this is not the most objective way of evaluating Mercer’s season. But the question I was asking was, ‘how many players have done what Mercer has, at his age or younger?’ And the answer is, not a whole lot.
Points aren’t everything though. Many in the analytics community would argue they are a pretty crappy way of evaluating players. And if we look at some of some of the numbers under the hood, things don’t look so hot.
Mercer hasn’t been very effective at either end in terms of driving results and he has been particularly awful both defensively and on the power play. The numbers from Evolving Hockey don’t look any better. Mercer is below the likes of Mason Geertsen and Janne Kuokkanen in terms of xGAR, and he just beats out Ty Smith for worst impact among Devils skaters who have been regulars in the line-up.
So what does this mean? Is Mercer the real cause of the Devils struggles to keep the puck out their net? Well, he’s not exactly helping the cause, but the point of this isn’t to point out that he sucks or anything like that. It’s to point out that despite the skill and offensive talent Mercer often demonstrates, he has struggled this year in many areas of the game. You might say that he still has a lot of room to grow. With that in mind, I want to compare him to another Devils forward who had mixed reviews in his rookie season. Jesper Bratt.
Much like Mercer, Bratt had a hot start to the year before cooling off considerably. With both players, the skill and hockey sense was evident and they started the year with a lot of swagger before the grind of their first full NHL season wore them down, likely both physically and mentally. And in both cases the underlying numbers show a flawed player who was playing above their head on a lot of nights.
This isn’t to say that I expect Mercer to one day be as good as Bratt is, just that I am reminded of Bratt and some of the lessons I learned when I look at Mercer’s rookie season. The main one being to not right off a player right away just because the numbers under the hood aren’t pretty. When the skill and hockey sense is there and the player is still at an age where they are developing physically it can take a year or two for the underlying numbers to catch up to the ‘eye-test’. This was true for Bratt and I am confident it will be the case for Mercer as well.
Mercer hasn’t been as good as he’s looked at times this year, but he has been asked to play a major role on a team in the best league in the world as a 20 year-old rookie and hasn’t fallen flat on his face. He’s the only Devil to have, so far, played every game. He has been moved up and down the line-up, and has played both at center and wing. He has been put into the role of playing arguably the most demanding position in the sport (among skaters), where he’s expected to contribute at both ends of the ice. And yes, he’s struggled in this role, but the fact that he’s even been tasked with the responsibility says a lot about highly the coaching staff thinks of him. I am excited to watch what Mercer becomes in the next few years as he hopefully develops into a major contributor for this team.
What have you thought about Mercer’s rookie season. Do you agree with me that his story has slipped through the cracks slightly? What are you expecting from Mercer going forward? Does he shift to the wing or does he end up being the Devils 3rd line center? Do you think the coaching staff has given him too much responsibility or have they handled his development well? Please leave your comments below and thank you for reading.