Things have been going well for the Devils this season, as they have entered their bye week and the All-Star break with the league’s third-best points percentage and finally seem to have made good on the long-promised emergence from their rebuild. They have a group of elite performers leading the way, with Jack Hughes getting himself Hart trophy buzz at age 21 and the group of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton performing at high levels as well. They are one of the most dynamic teams in the league, finally have a goaltender performing at a high level again in Vitek Vanecek, and even have some potentially elite talents still in their prospect pipeline arriving soon to boot. Even with a somewhat uneven last couple months of play, the Devils still sit second in the league in 5v5 expected goals percentage, demonstrating that they are not just a flash in the pan. In short, it’s all going pretty well in New Jersey.
With all that in mind, let’s get to the important business of sports blogging: complaining about stuff. In the midst of all the good that has come along this season, there have still been some perplexing decisions in lineup construction and roster management at the NHL level. Chief among those has been how the team has handled Alexander Holtz. I have already written about this topic once this season back in October, but it remains one of the more baffling situations with the team at present, so I feel inclined to bring it up again.
The complaint isn’t so much related to whether Holtz does or does not deserve NHL ice time. It is more in the fact if the team intends for him to contribute in a meaningful way in the future, their current approach seems unlikely to aid in bringing about that result. Holtz has been healthy scratched from 31 of the Devils’ 49 games this season and has averaged about 10 minutes in the games he has been inserted into the lineup for. His time with the team’s top two centers has essentially been negligible, meaning he has been centered by a pair of light-scoring bottom six centers in the lion’s share of his 5v5 minutes, which, again, have been very limited, regardless.
The Devils are playing Holtz like he’s a roster-filler right now. Maybe that’s all he ends up being, who knows, but it doesn’t really add up to deploy him that way when considering he’s 20 years old (now 21 as of last week) and is a high-end draft pick who was ostensibly selected for his potential to score a lot of goals for the New Jersey Devils. If you are not going to put him in a position to use his most notable tool (his shot) to score goals or, beyond that, really even play him at all, it’s hard to understand why he is on the NHL roster at this point.
Maybe the coaches see value in allowing him to practice at the NHL level, but even on that point, Lindy Ruff had to concede in this recent NJ dot com article on Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund that there has been limited practice time of late (which is not out of the ordinary in the heart of an NHL schedule). Are morning skates and other assorted limited practice sessions enough, development-wise, to justify a top prospect getting 10 minutes of ice time a week at the NHL level? What opportunity does that kind of deployment offer to make improvements or generate useful feedback from coaches? Doesn’t seem like it would be very much.
Are the Devils so convinced that Holtz has nothing to gain from playing substantial minutes in the AHL that they would prefer he just hang out in the scratch suite 60% of the time and barely play otherwise in the NHL? It’s not like the situation with Zetterlund, where the player is older and you risk losing him to waivers if you attempt to send him down. Holtz is firmly in the waiver-exempt category at this point and will be for another couple of seasons. Even given the opportunity to send him down to give him minutes at full speed during the team’s 9-day layoff around the all-star break, they declined.
The bottom line is that Holtz is not a fourth-line grinder, at least not at this juncture. Sometimes players can recalibrate and retool their game to become a more effective bottom-of-the-lineup player, but that doesn’t seem to be the thing the Devils should be aiming for with a guy who was drafted to be a scoring winger and turned 21 a week ago. I said something along these lines back in October, but if the Devils’ coaching staff cannot stomach giving the player a few games to settle in next to one of their top centers to see if he can generate some chemistry, then he should not be in the NHL.
I don’t even necessarily blame Lindy Ruff here, at least not entirely. I can quibble with his deployment decisions but he’s trying to ice the lineup he thinks is going to give him the best chance to win. If he doesn’t think Holtz is a meaningful part of that, the onus is then on Tom Fitzgerald to send Holtz down so that he doesn’t languish in the scratch suite and end up with 300 scattered minutes of ice time total across what should be a fairly critical season of development.
It’s not that Ruff plopped Holtz next to the top centers and saw things crater. In the vanishingly small times that Holtz has been on the ice with Hughes and Hischier at 5v5 (13:36 and 12:27, respectively), the xG numbers didn’t collapse and no goals were scored that would theoretically precipitate a swift demotion. Essentially, Holtz in a top-six configuration has not really even been attempted, aside from on maybe the power play where he has high-end PP2 minutes overall in the games where he’s appeared. If the guy isn’t even worth a look in the role that he is most likely to contribute in, I don’t really understand why he is in the NHL at all.
The conversation on stuff like this inevitably devolves into an argument about whether or not the player in question has earned a larger role on the team. Certainly, someone could look at the three goals and one assist in 18 games, plus a lackluster relative xG share, and conclude that he just hasn’t done enough to earn the minutes, which has some validity, but is also undercut a little bit by the meager and uneven deployment. A top-10 pick who is 20/21 years old doesn’t really seem like the ideal candidate for 13th/14th forward useage, but that’s effectively what we are currently seeing. If the Devils need someone to play 10 mostly uneventful minutes once every three nights next to Jesper Boqvist or Mike McLeod, it seems like they could have just kept Andreas Johnsson around at the NHL level or called up a guy like Tyce Thompson who is probably a lot closer to whatever player he is going to be at this point.
What I’m advocating here is for the Devils to get Holtz out of this limbo they continue to have him in. They gave him a little bit of run between the end of November and start of January, with 14 of his 18 total games coming between November 28th and January 7th. Even within that stretch, though, he played under 10 minutes half the time and only eclipsed 12 minutes four times. If the conclusion at the end of that little stretch was that he wasn’t ready for a significant NHL role (which clearly it was, based on his three subsequent weeks of scratches), the team probably should have just sent him down at that point. In addition to being unlikely to aid his development to play so little, it also can’t help his trade value in the event the Devils want to make a significant deal for a good NHL player if he’s basically invisible on the NHL roster.
So, again, I make my plea to the Devils, either play Holtz like you expect him to be an NHL scoring winger, or let him spend time actually being that in the AHL. Making him a 14th forward and/or expecting him to have a major impact grinding it out on the forecheck seems unlikely to yield worthwhile results for anyone.