Two days after my birthday in 2019, December 16, the New Jersey Devils dealt their former Hart Trophy winner, the only Hart Trophy winner in Devils history, to the Arizona Coyotes for Nick Merkley, Nate Schnarr, Kevin Bahl, a conditional first round draft pick in 2020 and a conditional third round draft pick in 2021.
Merkley and Schnarr wound up mostly as footnotes in the deal. But as we all know, Kevin Bahl has been evolving into an NHL defenseman in front of our eyes, especially recently seemingly playing the best hockey of his young career (though that hasn’t stopped Lindy Ruff from pulling him in and out of the lineup for veteran Brendan Smith). Bahl skates exceptionally well for a giant of a man, but he still has hiccups occasionally in his game where he will be beat by bad positioning or lack of a quick pivot to counter an oncoming attacker. Still, there’s hopes that Kevin Bahl can be a steady fifth or sixth defenseman for many years to come.
As for that third round pick, well the Devils dealt that pick to Washington for someone we may all be familiar with:
Yeah, I’d say that the Hall deal worked out nicely. As a side note, Siegenthaler was essentially made available for that third round pick because of fear of losing him for nothing to the expansion Seattle Kraken. The Devils also pulled off a deal for Ryan Graves for a pick and Mikhail Maltsev to the Colorado Avalanche because they were also afraid of losing the Gravy Train to Seattle for nothing. God Bless expansion! In fact, if you include Devils GM getting John Marino from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ty Smith due to the Pens cap concerns, Fitzgerald remade his entire defense by swooping in to “help” teams in bad situations. As an aside, while Adam Larsson has turned into a very good defensive defenseman, the 4th overall pick in 2011 has parlayed himself into possibly the greatest trade tree in the history of the New Jersey Devils.
And I saved the best for last. The entire purpose of this piece is to celebrate none other than the Dawg from Newfoundland. Dawson Mercer. Since the start of the 2021-2022 season, Mercer has played a possible 149 games...out of 149 games. He broke Scott Gomez’s record of consecutive games to start a Devils career earlier this month. And he doesn’t play a timid game. He’s listed at 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, according to his NHL page. But he plays like someone much bigger. He drives to the net with reckless abandon, fights for the puck in the corners with the relentlessness of a starving coyote and shows flashes of incredible skill.
Yes, he’s gone pointless in two games since his 12-game point streak ended but he’s never one to mail in an effort (not accounting for Thursday’s game against Tampa as this was written before that). It’s one of the qualities that has endeared him to Devils fans. On top of what he brings offensively, he’s also a penalty killer and went from 42 points in his rookie year over 82 games to 49 this year in 67 games. He jumped from 17 goals in 82 games last year to 22 in 67 this season. His player card on The Athletic looks like this:
He’s providing basically $7.5 million worth of value for his current entry level deal at just under $900,000. Top six value for entry level. This is how you wind up with one of the top teams in the NHL with players like this. He’s also locked into this deal for one more season, according to CapFriendly.
Also, remember that Mercer wasn’t often put in the top six for a good portion of this season. Lindy Ruff usually had him toiling on the third or even sometimes the fourth line. But Mercer really took off when he was put with Nico Hischier and Tomas Tatar. That line became nearly unstoppable while Mercer set a franchise record for the longest point streak for a player 21 or younger, surpassing Brendan Shanahan.
And I think we are only scratching the surface with Mercer. He’s always appeared to have very good chemistry with Jack Hughes, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him wind up next to the Devils superstar, maybe even this season. It isn’t a mystery either because both Hughes and Mercer have hockey instincts that are off the charts. If you’ve ever watched the Devils warmup in person, Hughes and Mercer are always the last two on the ice, trading passes and practicing one-timers. Mercer is the last one off the ice, but Hughes is always right there with him. And that work ethic and that mindset if what you want to see from younger players just brimming with talent.
Regardless, Dawson Mercer is a gem that should be as much a part of the essential core moving forward (thank you to Tom Fitzgerald for keeping Mercer when dealing for Timo Meier) as Hughes and Hischier and Hamilton. Remember, Mercer was drafted as a center and that versatility to shift to wing and be elite there has only made him that much more valuable moving forward. Imagine as the Devils introduce more players to the lineup if Mercer can be the third center behind Hughes and Hischier. I don’t know if that’s ultimately the plan or the Devils just ride with Mercer as an elite winger moving forward, but regardless, the team is well positioned because of that versatility.
Not that Mercer needed a whole appreciation post, but given how much he brings to the team, his entire vibe and the relentless way he approaches the game once the puck drops, it’s hard to ignore the love the fanbase has for him. Oh and there’s also this:
#NJDevils Dawson Mercer went home for break and told me this is Bauer the family’s 7-year-old black lab. He thought about heading south for warmer weather but hasn’t had a real winter in four or five years.— Kristy Flannery (@InStilettos_NHL) February 5, 2023
“Halfway through the trip we got some snow and I was so happy.” pic.twitter.com/sJf8KOMu8H
As someone with a black lab myself, how can you not appreciate a guy who went home during the All Star break to be with his good boy rather than some tropical destination. Hope he enjoyed it because he might wind up not having the break in the future and instead be wherever the All Star game is that season.