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Expiring New Jersey Devils Entry Level Contracts in 2024 Part 2: Dawson Mercer

New Jersey Devils forward Dawson Mercer is entering the final season of his entry level contract in 2023-24. This post explains why you should expect that Mercer is going to get paid extremely well.

New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils - Game Five
Dawson Mercer is going to get paid.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Dawson Mercer is going to get paid. Dawson Mercer’s entry level contract (ELC) is ending after this season. This is Part 2 of the look at expiring ELCs for 2024. This post is not like Part 1 where the six in Utica have something to prove to get a second contract. Dawson Mercer is going to get another contract from the New Jersey Devils. There is no doubt about that. This is 100% going to happen. The only questions are: How much? and How long?

For the unaware, here is a brief summary of Dawson Mercer. The 2020 first round pick acquired from Arizona for Taylor Hall ended up being 18th overall in that year for the New Jersey Devils. It was used to take Mercer. The People Who Matter at the time largely liked or loved the pick. The offensive winger from Chicoutimi was seen as a smart selection by the Devils. After one more season in the ‘Q,’ Mercer proved those who praised the pick right by making the Devils in the 2021-22 season.

Since then, Mercer has been the ultimate regular. He has yet to miss a NHL game. He has been used in various spots in the lineup. He has also been a contributor. On a bad Devils team in 2021-22, Mercer finished his rookie season with 42 points, good for sixth on the team in total points. On a very good Devils team in 2022-23, Mercer upped his production big-time as a sophomore. His 56 points was good for fifth on the team in points and I imagine some of the People Who Matter are still buzzing about his amazing DAWG-filled goal streak from late February to early March. His first taste of the playoffs ended with three goals and four assists in 12 games, tying him for second on the team in playoff scoring with Nico Hischier and Ondrej Palat. You could not watch the Devils in the last two seasons and not notice Mercer on the scoresheet.

Or in general. What does Mercer do? Just about everything. He played on both ends of special teams even in the playoffs. He can hang with Timo Meier in the top-six or fit in comfortably on the third line for match-up purposes. On or off the puck, Mercer is able to put himself in a position to help the team. He is not an amazing playdriver but he is not a drag on it. He may not get a Selke in the future but he is more than competent on defense. He is not a shot machine but he is quite skilled when he does have the puck. He may not be the fastest skater but he more than keeps up in an up tempo offense. Mercer has demonstrated that he is a very capable player in all three zones - all before his third NHL season at age 22. That third NHL season that will be the last on his entry level contract.

I will repeat myself: Mercer will be kept by the Devils. And I will let you know now: it is not going to be cheap short of a master class negotiation by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald or Mercer deciding he does not want a lot of money. Allow me to give you some perspective by comparing Mercer’s first two NHL seasons with two other players who performed admirably during their entry level contract seasons. That is right: it is time an anonymous player comparison!

The DAWGson, Player A, and Player B

Dawson Mercer against Player A’s and Player B’s ELC seasons.  (Note: The numbers in parentheses for CF% and xGF% are ranks among the team’s forwards)
Dawson Mercer against Player A’s and Player B’s ELC seasons. (Note: The numbers in parentheses for CF% and xGF% are ranks among the team’s forwards)
Natural Stat Trick

I assure you: You know who Player A and Player B are. I will be up front and say that Mercer, Player A, and Player B play different styles of hockey on the ice and in different roles. However, money and term is usually driven by results in those roles and that is what this comparison is about. Let me walk through these numbers.

In terms of games played, Mercer already has an edge. Both Player A and B missed some time, although it was a bit out of the control of Player A for that third season. While games played will not get a player paid, it is critical to doing things that will get a player paid.

Such as putting up points. Mercer’s production lags a bit behind Player A and B in the first season, but Mercer’s second season beats out A’s and B’s second season in raw numbers. Again, if A and B were able to play 82 games in that second season, then it would look different. But we have to deal with what happened and what could have happened. What happened was that A and B was not so productive in their second season while Mercer’s blossomed.

But points are just that. What about how the player attacked? In terms of shots per game, Mercer is behind A and B by quite a bit. While he just edged out Player B in that first season, B got his shot on in the next two seasons. Player A’s shot rate went up and then down, but still remained steady for two per game. Something Mercer could stand to do - if he was not on a line with someone who would and should shoot the puck more. Fortunately, individual expected goals (ixG) can point to whether those shots were dangerous. Again, Mercer and Player B were on par with each other in the first season - and both were behind Player A. But Mercer’s second season was no joke. Say what you want about the xG model at Natural Stat Trick, but Mercer’s 27 goals is in line with where the young Devil was shooting. It took Player B to reach his third season to get the level of ixG that Mercer had last season. And, unfortunately, Player A saw his ixG fall from his rookie season.

Player A and B can feel better about their on-ice play. When they were on the ice in 5-on-5 hockey, they were among the top forwards on their team. While Player A did not breakeven in attempts (CF%) in any of his first three seasons, he was better than the majority of his teammates. That does suggest that he was more of an asset than the percentage looks on paper. He did break 50% twice in expected goals (xGF%), which also speaks to Player A being an asset. Player B was a 5-on-5 monster. Those CF% and xGF% numbers would look great even on last season’s Devils team. Player B led his team in CF% and his xGF% showed that it was not just his team dominating with low-percentage attempts. This is where Mercer comes up short by quite a bit. While he was above 50% last season - and really went above it in xGF% last season - he was just among the forwards on the Devils. By no means was Mercer bad, but he was not a leader in this respect. Other forwards were driving the play; Mercer was more or less helping it along.

It could be easily argued that Mercer is not quite on the level of Player B. But it not as far off as it may seem. Mercer definitely out-produced Player A, although it could be argued that Player A was more helpful in the run of play - especially since most of his teammates at forward were worse than him at it. These are not perfect comparisons. A lot is going to depend on Mercer’s upcoming season as to whether he further surpasses Player A and possibly closes the gap on Player B. However, they are quite relevant to the initial question of how much and how long will Mercer’s next contract may be. The team’s that had Player A and Player B took two different and expensive paths after their ELC’s ended.

Revealing Players A and B

OK. Enough with the A and B. Let me tell you who each of them actually are.

Player A is someone you absolutely should know: he’s the captain of the Devils. It is Nico Hischier. Before that third season even fully began, Devils GM Ray Shero signed Hischier to a seven-season extension worth $50,750,000 - for a cap hit of $7.25 million per season. That third season was cut short due to the global pandemic as that was the 2019-20 season.

Player B is also someone you absolutely should know: he’s one of the league’s best forwards. It is Matthew Tkachuk. After his ELC ended, Calgary GM Brad Treliving gave Tkachuk a bridge contract right around training camp for the 2019-20 season: a three-season deal worth $21 million; a cap hit of $7 million per season.

No, Dawson Mercer may not be critical to the Devils like Hischier is right now. No, Dawson Mercer is not likely going to emerge and be a dominating forward like Matt Tkachuk. But the difference between both and Mercer based on what they did in their ELC seasons is not as large as you may think. If nothing else, I hope I have at least convince you of that. As a result, keeping Mercer is going cost much closer to Hischier and Tkachuk than, say, Jesper Bratt’s second contract. (Aside: Mercer’s ELC seasons blow Bratt’s away already. Mercer has more goals in his first two seasons alone (44) than Bratt’s first three (37).)

To Bridge or Not to Bridge?

How much it will cost will be dependent on how Mercer performs in his third season. Possibly. The Hischier experience shows that it may not be so critical. Devils management possibly has seen enough to offer a big, long-term contract and hope that Mercer grows to make it look like a bargain. This is a bet the Devils made with Hischier and The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. A bet that has paid off already as Hischier has become a strong two-way center and The Big Deal is the scoring machine many hoped for since his USNTDP days in 2018-19.

Should the Devils not seek an extension or cannot agree to terms with one, then the Tkachuk experience shows the other way. A bridge deal. Before preseason began for Calgary in 2019, Treliving and Tkachuk’s people came to terms on a beefy short-term deal. A contract that still kept him as a restricted free agent by its end, but with arbitration eligibility and being a season or so away from unrestricted free agency. It was enough to reward Tkachuk’s dominant third season. Not even a global pandemic could keep him from slowing his rates of production. The final season of that bridge deal was that 42-goal, 104-point season that confirmed that Matthew Tkachuk was an all-world forward. It was also the final season of his time in Calgary as he wanted out; so Tkachuk became a part of the first NHL sign-and-trade and earned himself a massive $76 million contract over eight seasons. He did not just cross that bridge to a bigger pay day; he built a ramp and launched over it.

While the Matt Tkachuk example is an extreme for a bridge deal, it does highlight the major risk of one. A player who over-performs that will want to get paid much later. This is a bit of an issue for a Devils team that added Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt to the books, the books now have Jonas Siegenthaler’s extension for five seasons kicking in, and those books had Nico Hischier, Ondrej Palat, Dougie Hamilton, and John Marino already signed for the next four seasons or more. That is a lot of money tied up for future seasons. The best case scenario for Mercer - soaring beyond expectations as a player - may end up being a problem for the Devils cap and budget-wise if a bridge deal is done. That is an uncomfortable reality. I want the players on my favorite team to do as well as possible; I do not want to have to root for them to be less than excellent in order to keep their next contract low. Such is the reality of cap management.

That said, the same roster inflexibility may keep the Devils from following Hischier’s example and giving Mercer seven or eight seasons right now. The Devils would have to be sure Mercer is someone they want to keep around. I think they do think that and I hope they do think that. But that further cements that this team is the team. That this is the team to contend and, ideally, go achieve hockey immortality within the next four seasons. Any way to change it up would require a deal that could shake the core. Plus, since Mercer getting a long-term deal would guarantee he is in that core, do not be shocked if he asks for Hischier money. After all, he has out-produced Hischier’s ELC - why should he settle for much less.

Which is another wildcard. In addition to what Mercer does in 2023-24, the salary cap is going to help drive this decision among others. The hope and expectation is that the salary cap is going to rise dramatically in the next few years. The hope and expectation is that the NHLPA will pay off the escrow difference and so the cap can rise up with the natural increase in hockey-related revenue. CapFriendly already has next season’s cap ceiling listed at $87.5 million (a $4 million increase) and $92 million (another $4.5 million increase) for 2025-26. Those are just projections but that would be in line with that hope and expectation. As much as I agree that it could happen, I really do need to see it to believe it. And there can always be something that leads to a smaller increase. Perhaps not a global pandemic, but something.

How would it impact this decision? I think if there is a lot of confidence that this salary cap is going to go up, then I think the Devils would end up saving more money in the long term with giving Mercer a long-term extension. Again, given the comparison with Hischier’s ELC seasons, that extension could be in line with what the captain currently gets. You may not think Mercer is a $7 to $7.25 million player, but it would be around there for the purposes of a long-term extension. The point of the bet is to make a manageable overpay for a player who can make it look like a bargain later on. The player gets a substantial increase but not one that he cannot live up to. It worked with Hischier, it worked with Hughes, and it can be done with Mercer.

If the Devils want to avoid paying Mercer that much for his second contract, a bridge deal would be cheaper in the short term. Unless Mercer has a Tkachuk-ian third season, I think a bridge could be done in the $6 million cap hit range (as in $6.1 to a nice $6.9) for three seasons. Anything lower would be very favorable to Fitzgerald and the Devils. The risk, again, is that if/when it ends with a higher cap ceiling and hopefully some magnificent seasons from Mercer, the salary demands may be much higher than what he would get in the bridge deal. For example: $7 million under the current cap of $83.5 million is 8.3%. 8.3% of a $92 million cap is $7.71 million. The ask may very well be in terms of percentage of cap to show value regardless of the cap situation. Fitzgerald, of course, would argue more about the money. The point is: a bridge deal would provide short-term savings at the risk of a bigger cost down the road.

What Would I Do?

Give him the eight-season extension. Even if it is a lot now, I have faith he can be worth it. And not too long in the future too.

I think very highly of Dawson Mercer. On this Devils team, he is not going to be leader at forward. And that is more than fine. Let Hischier and Hughes do that. Others can be the drivers, Mercer can continue being a strong producer to finish drives and who can be used in a lot of different situations to help. The soon-to-be-22-year-old provides a lot of value already and I think that will increase over the next three seasons. Mercer at ages 24, 25, and 26 could be a real all-three-zone force to help the Devils be serious contenders along with . He will still likely be an impact player as he enters his 30s, provided he remains having great injury luck.

I write all that because I think the smart play is to make that long-term bet. Give him the eight-season extension. I would start with an average accrued value (cap hit) of $7 million. That may be enough really. Fitzgerald has effectively committed to this group anyway outside of the crease. He might as well reward the guy with 98 points in his first two NHL seasons. The guy who has already played quite a bit and quite well with this core that is set in New Jersey through 2027. The guy who ended up being one of the team’s top playoff scorers in his first taste of NHL playoff hockey. The guy who is excellent with the puck and can go on awe-inspiring goal streaks. The guy who, even when he is not on the scoresheet, is rarely being a drag or just a guy out there. The guy who has become a significant player on this team within two seasons of being in the NHL. I see no reason to not add Mercer to the 2027 Window Crew (The what? More on that on this coming Sunday).

I really do think a bridge deal could end up hurting the Devils in the three to four seasons when one ends. I do think that if Mercer becomes a consistent 25-30 goal, 55-75 point player who handles his business well in all situations, then he is going to be worth $7 million. Perhaps well over it. Especially with a larger salary cap after that bridge deal ends. I would rather make the bet and hope Mercer continues to thrive rather than save a little money now and hope he does not soar over the bridge like Matt Tkachuk (and others) did - costing the Devils much more in the future. More that they may not have.

In short: Tom Fitzgerald, please give the dawg pack in Mercer’s chest the finest steaks and bones, lock him up as long as possible, and prepare to look real smart in a few seasons in the same way Hockey Media and fans marvel at the Hischier and Hughes contracts.

Your Take

I am clearly a believer in Mercer’s future even without him taking one single shift in his contract season. I think the long-term extension is the better move than a bridge deal, even if it means giving Mercer more than he may be worth now. The larger point remains: Mercer’s next contract will not be a cheap one unless Mercer is generous and Fitzgerald dominates in negotiations. What he has done so far is not laughably different than Tkachuk and Hischier regardless of how different each of them play. And, again, results get the money.

What I want to know is what you think. What do you think the Devils should do with Mercer’s next contract? Do you want Fitzgerald to give him a long-term extension like I do? If so, for how much? Would you prefer a bridge deal instead? For how much and how long? What do you think Mercer’s ceiling is as a Devil? What do you think of Mercer in general? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Newfie with the DAWG in Him in the comments. Thank you for reading.