As you have been fully aware, the New Jersey Devils are without center Jack Hughes and center Nico Hischier. A significant problem as both players are crucial to the New Jersey Devils among their forwards and the team as a whole. A problem that has come to fruition as the Devils have won just two out of the six games since both were made unavailable; and the four losses were not particularly close ones in terms of performance. They won last night in a relieving victory but it does not erase the real issues the team had on display before hand. Back to the centers; their absence is a problem for the Devils. It is also a problem that no one in the NHL will offer much sympathy for. Injuries happen to everyone and everyone has to make it work. Even Our Hated Rivals have found ways to win without a Norris-caliber defenseman in Adam Fox and a Vezina-caliber goaltender in Igor Shesterkin; two critical players to their roster. Sadly, I have to write that they are overcoming that adversity. The Devils, not so much.
When Nico Hischier was knocked out of the Buffalo game, first by Connor Clifton and second and more legally by Dylan Cozen, Michael McLeod was forced to play up into the top six. This, plus a then-injured Tomas Nosek, also meant Chris Tierney was made a regular to center the fourth line. After Jack Hughes fell into the boards in St. Louis, Dawson Mercer as slid to the right. The only center to remain in his expected role on the team is Erik Haula. This post will focus on the other three who have been acting as replacements for the roster the Devils had at full strength at the start of this season. How have they done? Well, one has been a pleasant surprise to me.
The Apparent Rise of Michael McLeod
Michael McLeod has been a bottom-six forward since making the New Jersey Devils lineup in the 2018-19 season. McLeod has killed penalties, won a heap of faceoffs, and not been all that helpful in 5-on-5 play. He chipped in four goals and 22 assists for his efforts. I can respect those who see him as a hero for what he did in Game 7 against Our Hated Rivals in May. Still, he did not add much to the Devils beyond winning draws and those ocassional points. His first season to finish above 50% in either CF% or xGF% was last season per Natural Stat Trick after all Even then he ranked the worst among the regulars on that team in both stats, along with his common linemates of Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian. Tom Fitzgerald re-signed McLeod for one season at $1.4 million in July. That was a reflection of what he was: a fourth line center who could do some nice things but is not that essential. Given that McLeod was 25 and will turn 26 in February, there was not much reason to expect more from him.
Yet, I dare suggest that McLeod is showing a little bit more. A big part of that is that he has been skating alongside Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Toffoli instead of Bastian or Curtis Lazar recently. When McLeod and Bratt or Toffoli or Palat take a shift, the Devils usually own the run of play. With Palat, the team’s CF% has been a healthy 55.4%. It has been even better with Bratt and Toffoli with CF% topping nearly 62% and 68%, respectively. The same applies with Timo Meier. This suggests that McLeod is not a drag on them in 5-on-5 - which is a positive. Part of why Hughes and Hischier have been so crucial to the Devils is that they can and have pushed play forward so much. Offensive players will thrive if they are able to win pucks and move the game towards the other team’s end of the rink. While no one will confuse McLeod as being an offensive player, the Devils have been able to generate quite a bit with those combinations. And Lindy Ruff trusts McLeod enough to have rookie Luke Hughes behind him a bit more than the other defensemen.
This has allowed McLeod to attack more often himself. Remember, he set a career high last season with 26 points. He is on pace to break that with 6 points in his first 15 games. He also set a career high in shots on net last season with 90 in 80 games. With 30 in 15 games, he is also on pace to break that. Oh, and he is just one goal away from matching all of the goals he scored last season. Will either rates of points and shots on net last? Probably not after The Big Deal or the Captain returns. And these higher rates are still aiming for the 30s in points and somewhere in the 100s for shots. McLeod is not emerging as someone you can credibly call a secondary scorer. But they are signs that McLeod is not just filling in a spot with Bratt, Toffoli, Palat, Meier, or other non-fourth liners. He is not out of place on a line where the primary zone entry is not a dump-in. He is adding something beyond faceoff wins (which are at 63.2% this season) himself. That is a positive along with the positive on-ice rates with McLeod this season.
Ultimately, McLeod is not and should not be seen as a long-term answer in the top six. He is in this spot because Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are out. When they return, McLeod will go back to the bottom six. What I can say is that McLeod has stepped up in this situation. He has filled the role such that even when the Devils were sloppy on the ice and losing games, McLeod was far from being a contributor to that problem. That is big since McLeod’s time with New Jersey has been, shall we say, contentious on the ice. So much so that I would not be shocked if a returning Jack Hughes does not immediately send McLeod down the lineup. Both centers may have to return to force that to happen. That speaks to how much McLeod has taken advantage of this opportunity. One player may force that demotion to happen anyway though.
The Apparent Return of Dawson Mercer
Dawson Mercer was terrible in October. Mired in a slump on and off the puck. His on-ice rates were terrible. He went pointless in his first 10 games with just 12 shots on net over those games. He went shotless for 5 straight games in that slump too. Not what you want to see from a top-six forward coming off a 27-goal, 56-point season wherein he revealed he had a kennel in his chest. Definitely not what the Devils needed when Hischier went out and Hughes went out during this timeframe.
However, Mercer is seemingly past the slump. Against Chicago, the first full game without Jack Hughes, Mercer got his first goal of the season amid a 4 shot night. Since then, he has put up at least at least four in all games except for a two-shot night in Colorado and two shots last night. Mercer has three goals in his last five games and registered his first assist of the season on a big insurance goal with Alexander Holtz in Pittsburgh last night. The production part of the slump seems to be a thing of the past.
Mercer’s on-ice rates in 5-on-5 have also seen some improvement per Natural Stat Trick. Before the Chicago game on November 5, Mercer was one of two Devils with sub-50% on-ice rates in both CF% and xGF%. The other was Alexander Holtz, whom was stapled to fourth liners he could not and did not carry. Mercer was then averaging 13 minutes per game at 5-on-5 and the observations matched the numbers. He was just out there not adding much. From November 5 onward, he remains sub-50% in both categories but he has been just shy of 50% in CF%, a rise from 47.6%; and his xGF% is below 48% instead of just above 46%. The coaches have had to put more trust into Mercer. Before Jack Hughes’ injury, Mercer only played over 20 minutes once this season. After, he has done it twice - over 22 minutes last night - while playing no fewer than 17 and a half minutes since the win in Chicago. With the points and the early gains in 5-on-5 on-ice rates when Mercer is on the ice, Mercer is rewarding that trust.
This is a positive development for the long-term. Mercer getting out of his slump is valuable for New Jersey’s scoring depth. Unlike McLeod, Mercer will be an option for the top-six once Hughes and Hischier returns. But like McLeod, the staff may now see Mercer as a legitimate center option. This can come into play should there be another injury at center or if they want to construct a more offensive line with Mercer as the pivot instead of Erik Haula or McLeod. I think once both centers return, Mercer will go back to wing. When one does return (likely Jack Hughes first), Lindy Ruff and his staff will have to decide to do that then and keep McLeod as a fill-in option as a top-six center, or keep Mercer in the top six and move McLeod down as a center. It is a good short-term situation to have given McLeod’s play as a fill-in option. Plus, if it does not work out, it can be flipped.
The Apparent Falling Short of Chris Tierney
I would say Michael McLeod has made as good of an effort as you or I could expect to make the most of an opportunity to play higher up in the lineup. It is temporary but he has done his best to at least not be an anchor or a mess in it. I would say Dawson Mercer is emerging from the doghouse that was his slump, which is good because we know from the last two seasons how talented he can be. Chris Tierney, on the other hand, did not make the most of his opportunity in the Devils lineup. So much so that Ruff opted to go with eleven forwards and seven defenseman last night against a hot Pittsburgh team. Tierney was a scratch in the Devils’ 5-2 win on the road - even with Timo Meier missing the game. That says a lot about where he stands on the squad.
This is a shame because Tierney really has to show his worth is still NHL caliber. For much of the 605 games in his career, Tierney has been a bottom-six forward. Recent times have shown he is no longer guaranteed to play most nights. Last season, Tierney was averaging fewer than 10 minutes per game with Florida for 13 games and rose above it to average over 12 minutes per game on oft-injured Montreal team for 23 games. Even so, that’s 36 total appearances and little ice time with either team. That is where he is at in his career: he is a player now looking to earn a chance to stay in the NHL. The Devils signed him to a two-way deal at the league minimum and he has remained on the New Jersey roster since training camp as a spare. I want to believe the waiver wire rules kept him. And perhaps preseason showed he was ahead of Justin Dowling, Kyle Criscuolo, and Shane Bowers, who were the other non-Tomas Nosek centers the Devils acquired in this past summer. When injuries began to mount, Tierney would see action regularly on the Devils’ fourth line.
In eight appearances so far with the Devils, he has shown why he is not a guaranteed NHL regular like he once was. I do not think it will shock you that he has no points. I think it might shock you a little that he has no shots on net. It may also be a little surprising that he has played over 10 minutes just once this season. When Tierney has been on the ice, the Devils have been cratered. In just over 61 minutes of 5-on-5 play, Tierney has an on-ice CF% of roughly 43.9% and an xGF% of 34.55%. Those are among the worst among all Devils skaters. This means the Devils are forced to defend quite a bit when he takes a shift and they generate very little offense. Not that you expect a lot from a fourth line, but getting caved in the run of play hurts the cause. Especially in road games where Ruff and his staff cannot shelter him. And in terms of memorable moments, the first thing that comes up in my mind is his “assist” to Ryan Johansen in the loss to Colorado. That was a particular lowlight. Also a result of the team being forced to play back when he is on the ice so often. At his best, Chris Tierney was just a guy on the ice. That is not good enough even for someone who was originally seen as the 13th or 14th forward in the organization.
While the expectations for Tierney were not much, a decent fourth line should be able to be good enough on the ice to allow the other forwards to get a breather. Playing such that he gets practically benched by the third period helps no one. Again, Tierney is at a point in his career where he needs to prove he still belongs in this league. None of these eight games with New Jersey have shown he really does. There is still a lot of season left, but it is crucial for Tierney’s own career to have enough decent showings so the Devils or another team are willing to give him at least another two-way deal for another season. That meant he had to show he can chip in something in limited minutes or demonstrate good play in one of the three zones on the ice. Tierney really has not done that. That is a shame.
As it stands, the Devils just beat a hot Pittsburgh team with 11 forwards and Tierney as a scratch. They did not need to wait for a returning center to move Tierney out of the lineup. The recent return of Tomas Nosek, who can play center certainly influenced that decision; but Tierney was still in games when Nosek returned. It may take another injury or roster decision before Tierney sees a shift in a Devils game. If it does happen, please, Chris Tierney, make the most of it. For your own career’s sake.
What the New Jersey Devils need are their two best centers, two best forwards, and two best players back in Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. Even if you are pleased with McLeod as a substitute center in the top six. Even if you are hopeful that Mercer is back to showing he has a proverbial DAWG in his chest. The Devils need these two back at 100% to play to the best of their abilities. As great as the win in Pittsburgh was last night - also as an example of how the Devils’ issues this season have been largely self-inflicted - the Devils can only truly contend with Hughes and Hischier.
Of course, we got to see that life and hockey do not work that way. They got hurt. The games still had to be played. What the Devils did in replacement was make-shift. It would be easy to say it was not good enough given that the Devils have been 2-4-0 from the loss in St. Louis when Hughes fell into the boards for injury. It would not be entirely correct. As poor as the Devils have played in those games - and even in a few after Hischier’s injury - it was not a direct result of whether McLeod was in over his head, Mercer was still mired in a slump, and/or Tierney was just abjectly bad. McLeod honestly has not been overwhelmed by the increase in minutes. Mercer has been playing better as of late. Tierney, well, he was truly bad but the fourth line was just a part of why the Devils lost four of their last six and not necessarily a constant one.
This bodes somewhat well in the long term for this season of the New Jersey Devils because the staff now has further options. Not that McLeod should ever play above Hughes or Hischier, but if injury strikes again to them or someone else like Haula, then it would not be the end of hockey if McLeod has to play up a line. Or if Mercer slides back to the middle from the wing for a game or two. Provided Nosek is still available, Tierney is not really needed on a regular basis. And depending on how the Devils feel about Max Willman or any future acquisitions at forward, Tierney may not be needed at all. Such is the result of the Devils’ replacements at hand for Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, whom I both wish the best of health and come back fully ready to compete in what has become a very tight division.
Now that you know what I think of how Michael McLeod, Dawson Mercer, and Chris Tierney have been playing while Hischier and Hughes have been out, I want to know what you think. There is no question the Devils miss The Big Deal and their captain. How do you think McLeod and Mercer have done since they have left the lineup? Do you think Mercer will keep improving or at least return closer to how he performed last season? Has McLeod proven to you that he can be a legitimate fill-in option up the lineup in the future? What can Tierney do to show he is a NHL player? Do the Devils need to invest in another center for depth purposes as the season goes on? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on these three in the comments. Thank you for reading.