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Dawson Mercer Needs To Step Up

With Captain Nico Hischier down yesterday, Michael McLeod stepped up to the second line. That shouldn't have been necessary.

Minnesota Wild v New Jersey Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

Like many New Jersey Devils fans, my heart sank when I saw Nico Hischier down on the ice on Friday night. When he came back out onto the ice a couple of minutes into the second period, I was elated. But as I watched his shifts, watching him take another big hit early on and still look a little out of it on the ice, I was both unsurprised and a little relieved to see that he had stayed in the locker room in the third period. Sometimes, playing through pain is just not worth it.

I was similarly unsurprised when Lindy Ruff announced that Nico Hischier would be out for the game yesterday evening. Thankfully, they were able to play well against the Minnesota Wild, pulling out a 4-3 victory to advance to 5-2-1: now a nice start to the season. But instead of Dawson Mercer — who had a combined 98 points his first two seasons — filling in for Nico Hischier, it was Michael McLeod instead. I am not here to complain about the move. It was justified, and it worked.

Mercer’s Performance So Far This Year

Through eight games, Dawson Mercer only has three shots on goal at five-on-five, with a paltry 0.63 ixG. He had 132 shots and 16.94 ixG last season. In rate terms, Mercer has is getting just under five and a half fewer shots per 60, as well as 0.55 fewer expected goals. Not so shockingly, Dawson Mercer has not scored a goal yet this season. And while it’s unfortunate that he has not had much power play time, he has had a 1.16 ixG/60 in limited time, which is not great for a forward on the man advantage — but the reality is just that he’s not a main weapon on a team with as many scoring forwards as the Devils. Especially when Mercer is the least experienced of those scoring forwards, and the one with the lowest career-high point total, he’s going to have to make use of his even strength minutes.

The positives that Mercer has to work with is that the team’s on-ice performance with him on the ice is only mediocre. It is not in the “bad” territory yet, but mediocrity is disappointing enough in itself with a top six forward playing on the third line. The Devils are being outshot pretty heavily with Mercer on the ice (40-55 through eight games), but the Devils are getting just as many scoring chances as the opposition, and goals are even at 3-3 (that’s 1.78 per 60 minutes).

Ultimately, this is not up to Dawson Mercer’s standard. His underlying stats are worse than his rookie season, which is a jolt, considering his marked improvement in his second season. He is not putting himself in positions to score, and his passes have not been deposited in the back of the net, yet.

How Can Mercer Get Going?

If Ruff’s report that Nico is only day-to-day holds up, he should play on Thursday in Minnesota, when the Devils take on the Wild in a rare East-West home-and-home split, kicking off the Devils’ first real road trip of the year. Mercer’s line with Haula and Lazar did have good results last night, and I imagine that Curtis Lazar switches with Alex Holtz as McLeod drops back to the fourth line when Nico returns.

Last night, the Mercer-Haula-Lazar line had a 68.42 CF% and 83.44 xGF% to go along with Erik Haula’s goal. The McLeod line, with Bratt and Palat, was even more oppressive to the Wild attack, with an 82.35 CF% and 97.03 xGF% to go along with Jesper Bratt’s even strength goal. In this situation, it’s a good thing that Mercer was not really needed to center a top line, with McLeod apparently keeping things chugging along in the top six. But do I expect McLeod to do that consistently if he is ever needed to fill that spot again? Not really. I think he can do alright in a third line role, but the second line is a touch too far if the Devils are facing a team with a better top six, or at least one that’s on their game.

In his career, Dawson Mercer has had most of his success playing on lines with players such as Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes. While Mercer learned how to finish his plays on those lines quickly in his NHL career, playing with gifted skaters meant that he has never driven his own line at this level. And since Erik Haula, Alex Holtz, and Curtis Lazar are not known for their transition game prowess (though I think Haula’s game there is at least decent), it is now on Dawson Mercer to fix himself in this area.

I am not currently willing to break up the top six if it’s working, even if I think Mercer will be a better player than Ondrej Palat. At present time, Palat is doing the things the Bratt-Hischier line needs from him, and that line quickly meshed well. The time is now for Dawson Mercer to seize the reins on the third line and grow his game on his own. Alex recently wrote about how the Devils do not have three true scoring lines. Considering how well Erik Haula has played, with five goals in seven games, Dawson Mercer will have good enough linemates in Haula and Holtz (once Ruff returns Holtz to that line) to create offensive opportunities.

The confusing thing watching Mercer, at times, is that he seems to play too slow at times, even though he is capable of getting enough speed in his legs to beat defenders. He simply has not been aggressive enough at the beginning of the season. No player who has three shots at five-on-five through eight games is being aggressive enough.

According to NHL EDGE’s tracking data, Dawson Mercer is in the 55th percentile of top skating speed, and is in the 68th percentile in terms of skating bursts over 20 miles per hour. He is capable of beating a defender in transition every so often. He is also in the 83rd percentile in 18-20 MPH bursts, with 53 such instances (compared to the league average of 41) so far this season. EDGE also reports that he covers a slightly above-average amount of ice per game, indicating that he’s not burning too much energy overskating.

Given that, it seems pretty confusing to me that Mercer has never pushed the rush by himself this year. When he had a two-on-one with Curtis Lazar last night, he passed back to Lazar instead of taking the shot. Dawson Mercer should be the player on the third line that’s a little selfish with the puck. He’s not the complimentary piece on that line, he’s the best forward talent on his line. If he makes that pass back to Tyler Toffoli on a similar two-on-one, Toffoli probably puts the puck right back on his tape at the moment that puts Fleury too out of position to make a save. Lazar is not that type of guy. It was just a moment among many where Dawson Mercer has seemed too cautious.

If Mercer can become more aggressive as a puck carrier and offensive creator, he can build on his game and become a play-driving winger in his own right. Until then, he’s going to be reliant on incredible opportunism: production off far fewer shots than he is capable of producing. Until then, he will still only be a complimentary winger. Even if I don’t think Mercer has been truly bad this season, I do not think that is the player Dawson Mercer wants to be, and I do not think that is all that he is going to be: but he needs to take the next step before his lack of production hurts the team when it needs him.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Dawson Mercer’s year so far? Do you think his offensive game will return soon? Why do you think he has been so uninvolved? What needs to happen to get him on the board with consistency? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.