The Devils are a team that has some question marks dotting the roster, but one place that things are set is down the middle in their top six, where Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will serve as the team's critical one-two punch. Both players had strong seasons last year, with Hughes looking like an elite playmaking center and Hischier looking like the formidable two-way threat that will make the two of them a matchup nightmare going forward. In short, the top two centers are a position of strength these days for the Devils.
The issue, of course, is that those top two are unlikely to be healthy for the entire year, meaning that someone on the Devils roster will need to be there to pick up the slack. This isn’t just doomsaying; combined over the past two seasons, Hughes and Hischier have combined to play only 71% of their possible games for the team. That doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee that they will be injured for some chunk of the upcoming year(s), but it does mean that it is smart to plan for that eventuality. In years past, the Devils have had depth issues filling positions behind injuries, and while it’s been far from the only issue for the team, it has been indicative of the shortcomings of recent rosters.
Heading into 2022-23, a question for the Devils is what they have backing up the top two centers down the middle. In 2021-22, Dawson Mercer was the main answer to that issue. He was a breakout sensation to start his rookie campaign and looked like he might just be able to handle that responsibility on his own. Mercer cooled as the season went along, though, leading to him ultimately being moved to the wing for much of the second half of the season. The other options for the Devils were quite limited, being forced to make things work with a combination of Pavel Zacha, Jesper Boqvist, Yegor Sharangovich, and/or Michael McLeod if Mercer was at wing. That group was perhaps sufficient to power an adequate bottom six, but forced into top-six center work, none were particularly equipped for that role last season.
The major acquisition the Devils made that could have impact on the center position was the trade for Erik Haula. Haula has never been a star at any point in his career, but he has been a solid role player with a lot of different teams, including being a major piece of the famed Vegas team that went all the way to the Cup final in its expansion year. Haula is not a great option to have as a Plan A in your top six, but he is versatile and battle-tested forward who can handle a lot of matchups, win faceoffs, and score at a respectable pace. Haula replacing Zacha is only perhaps a marginal boost in terms of pure scoring, but Haula is a much more proven commodity at the center position, where Zacha was never particularly effective.
Beyond Haula, the Devils have largely the same crew at center heading into 2022-23, but even just the one proven depth option in Haula gives the group a different feel. If Haula can play well as a 3C and then provide decent spot duty in the top six, it opens things up for Dawson Mercer to fill in minutes at 3C behind an elevated Haula when called upon in his second full NHL season. Mercer was obviously learning on the fly when he stepped right in as a center (and was quickly forced into a bigger role after the early Hughes injury) in his first season, so I think there is plenty to be hopeful for in terms of his ability on that front, even if he ended up back at wing before the season was done.
Beyond Mercer, things certainly thin out a center more quickly, but the Devils do have another handful of bodies that can take on some minutes, including Jesper Boqvist, who looked like a player starting to figure it out in the back half of last season. The Devils are obviously not well equipped to handle injuries from both top centers at once, but I do think things look a bit better now if one or the other goes out for a few weeks at a time. This makes the Haula move a sneaky bit of good business, going from an enigma of a player who has never really worked at center to a much surer thing at the position. Between him and Mercer, hopefully the Devils have some cushion to absorb some injury troubles this year.