Training camp is now fast approaching, and you can feel the excitement of a new season starting to build around the league. Rookies will begin reporting to camp for the Devils in just over two weeks on September 14th, with veterans to follow the week after. The preseason opener is exactly four weeks away (some prospect games will come even earlier than that), and the team will begin to answer the questions that remain for this roster heading toward the 2022-23 season. Some things are pretty well set at this point, barring injury concerns. Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes will be the top two centers; Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek will be the goaltending tendem; five out of the six opening night starters on the blueline are largely set; and we also know who most of the forwards will be on the opening night roster.
One thing we don’t know all that well, though is exactly how the lineup will shake out at forward. Jesper Bratt and Ondrej Palat are pretty much locks for the top six for sure. Yegor Sharangovich and Erik Haula are both sure to fit somewhere in the top nine. Others like Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, Miles Wood, and Jesper Boqvist could potentially fit into the top nine as well, though there aren’t enough spaces for everyone. Then there is Dawson Mercer. Mercer is pretty much another lock for fitting somewhere in the top nine, but with the makeup of the Devils roster, he will probably be called upon to be the Swiss Army Knife of the group, splitting time between the wing and center as injuries crop up and players shift up and down the lineup.
Mercer had a strong, if slightly uneven, rookie season in 2021-22. He came out of the gate hot, centering the Devils third line on opening night before being forced into top six duty after the Hughes injury, where he played very well on a line with Bratt and Johnsson. That line eventually slowed and got split up and Mercer had a bit of a mid-season lull as the Devils tried to find another fit with Mercer as a center. Eventually the Devils shifted Mercer over to the wing and bumped him up to the top six, where he played alongside Hughes for a significant stretch and had some renewed success finding the scoresheet. Overall, it was far from a perfect season for Mercer, but it was a strong rookie performance as a 19/20-year-old.
The underlying numbers aren’t all rosy for Mercer for last season. His xG impact numbers don’t look great overall, powered in part by an especially rocky finish when the team was limping toward the end of the season. Looking at his season summary from HockeyViz, you can extract a few significant takeaways: first, he had a couple of stable stretches where he was on the aforementioned line with Bratt and Johnsson and also on Hughes wing (opposite Sharangovich, and then he had a lot of jumbled up stretches in between where he had a bunch of different linemates. If we go down and look at his rolling xG for/against (second chart from the bottom in the summary) we can see that his better runs coincide with those more stable stretches of linemates. We can also see that Mercer had two big lulls, one midseason at center where the Devils were scrambling to find another line that worked built around him, and then another substantial downturn at the end of the season when the Devils were calling guys up and getting pounded by their opponents almost nightly. Finally, if you look at the breakdown of his points, you can see that out of his 42 total points, he had only four secondary assists, meaning that 38 of his total points were primary points, putting him behind only Hughes, Bratt, and Hischier in that category. In the aggregate, it was not a flawless debut for Mercer but he made it clear enough that he has the juice to be a significant NHL contributor going forward.
As such, heading into the 2022-23 season, Mercer is no longer the wild card that he was heading into camp a year ago, but instead a key cog in the lineup that the Devils will be looking at to help steer the team toward success. I think that the most likely day 1 situation when the regular season opens will be Mercer on the wing somewhere in the top six, probably next to Jack Hughes, who he played significant minutes with last season. That was my assumption when I was looking at how the situation at wing might shake out a few weeks back.
If we have learned anything from the past few seasons, though, it’s that a team always has to be ready to respond when injuries pop up, and if either of the Devils’ top two centers misses some time, I think Mercer is the most attractive candidate (above guys like Jesper Boqvist and Yegor Sharangovich) to shift to the center position to try to maintain an effective lineup. Mercer’s reputation coming into the league was as a well-rounded two-way threat and at times, he did have that aura about him. By watching him you can glean that he has a good understanding of the game and pretty strong vision to anticipate on both offense and defense.
The results weren’t always great, though, and the Devils did get scored on quite a bit with Mercer on the ice. If there is any element of his game where he has things to prove heading into his second season, it’s in his own end where he needs to be more consistent. Truthfully, he needs to take a step forward with his game all around to be what the Devils need him to be. This is true of most players entering their second year as very few will have it all figured out as a rookie. Jesper Bratt ended up with really bad impacts across his full rookie season, but the potential he showed in stretches ended up being the window into the future. For someone like Ty Smith, the promising rookie stretches gave way to a disastrous sophomore campaign. Mercer had enough stretches of inspired play that I’m hopeful he’ll end up closer to the Bratt trajectory than the Smith one.
So, the bottom line is that the Devils are now in a position where Dawson Mercer is probably one of the five or six most important forwards on this team entering the season. To get what they need from him, they will need to help foster his development and hope that he can take a notable leap now that he has a full NHL season under his belt. If he takes a significant step forward like I think he is capable of doing, it will go a long way toward ensuring that the Devils have the level of skill and depth that they need to make the 2022-23 season different from the several that have preceded it.