Training camp and the NHL preseason are underway for the New Jersey Devils, which means its time for competition as there are several roster spots up for grabs. Everybody on the fringes of the main roster will be scrutinized and looked at under a microscope, but perhaps no player will be under more pressure to show he belongs than Alexander Holtz.
Holtz did not have a good season in 2022-23. He did make the Devils roster out of training camp and even scored a goal on Opening Night in Philadelphia, but due to the inconsistencies in his game, he quickly fell out of favor with the coaching staff and was ushered into the players suite as a healthy scratch. He sat out throughout the 13-game winning streak in November and bounced between playing sporadic minutes in the NHL and sitting out some more before the Devils finally pulled the plug and sent him to AHL Utica for more consistent playing time. Tom Fitzgerald was a big proponent of how the Devils could develop him at the NHL level, but even he relented when he said that Holtz was a victim of the Devils success and admitted the Devils should’ve handled him differently than they did.
The Devils were blunt in their assessment of Holtz’s play when management met with him during exit meetings. The message was clear. The skating has to be better. The conditioning has to be better. The speed of how you process the play on the ice has to be better. The play away from the puck has to be better if Lindy Ruff is going to trust you in 5-on-5 situations. When assistant GM Dan MacKinnon is using terms like “career-defining offseason” for a player who doesn’t turn 22 until January, alarm bells should be going off and that message should be taken to heart.
To Holtz’s credit, it would appear that he has done exactly that.
Holtz looks much leaner than in years past, just watching him on the ice right now. And that's making his skating noticeably faster.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) September 21, 2023
He worked a ton last year with #NJDevils skating coaches to improve his stride.
Day 1, you can tell it's different.
This is the point of the article where I would normally caution against training camp fluff pieces from team reporters. There might be no bigger cliché in sports than “Best Shape of My Life” stories at the start of the season, particularly when we’re talking about professional athletes who work on their game year-round and have access to personal trainers and dieticians the rest of us could only dream of. One wouldn’t be blamed for taking it with a grain of salt even though other reporters noted the same. With that said, it’s better to read that than to read the alternative.
I say all of that to say that the pairing of Holtz with Nico Hischier and Timo Meier is intriguing, and after the work Holtz put in over the summer, it’s a positive sign that the Devils are indeed going to give Holtz every opportunity to sink or swim this season with the big boys on the roster. I’m not sure there’s a better duo you could potentially ask for to put with a young winger trying to find his way in the NHL.
Now that Bruins legend Patrice Bergeron is retired, one could argue that Nico Hischier is the best defensive forward in the NHL. Whether one agrees with that or not, it is indisputable that Hischier plays a good two-way game while being skilled enough to get the puck to the other playmakers on his line. I don’t know that there’s any forward on the roster who exemplifies hard work and “responsible play” moreso than the captain. With Meier on that line as well, the Devils don’t have to ask Holtz to play the prototypical power forward game that Meier has done in the past. Hischier and Meier can do a lot of the dirty work on that line while Holtz can play his game and do what he does well. If Holtz is capable of doing the little things to earn their trust, he should be able to show off some of the puck skills and his shot that made him a 7th overall draft pick in the first place.
We got a taste of that in Monday’s preseason win over the Flyers. I’ll preface this by saying it’s preseason, the Flyers are bad, and a lot of the players Philadelphia skated in that game are a combination of has-beens and never-will-bes. I’m also not a professional hockey scout. With all of that out of the way, I thought Holtz was noticeable in a positive way with his skating and involvement in the run of play. Yes, there were some opportunities to make some plays that he couldn’t connect on, but in terms of checking, play away from the puck, being able to keep pace with his linemates, and how he was moving around to put himself in a position to make plays, I thought the positives outweighed the negatives. And I think that is where having a pair of reliable veterans who play the right way helped. It’s a huge step from last season when Holtz’s most common linemates at 5v5 were.....(checks notes).....Yegor Sharangovich and Jesper Boqvist. I don’t mean any disrespect to the two now-former Devils, but we’re talking about two players who found themselves in and out of the lineup themselves due to inconsistencies in their respective games. Hischier and Meier are quite an improvement in that regard.
It’s great Holtz scored in his preseason debut. Its great that he did so by driving to the open areas of the ice. As we saw last year though, its not enough for Holtz to pop in a couple goals in exhibition contests against AHL-lifers and future beer-league All-Stars. Nobody is asking Holtz to become Mark Stone and become a dominant two-way winger, but there does need to be growth in his game when it comes all of the little things I’ve mentioned that don’t appear on an Excel spreadsheet but matters to coaches. If you can’t earn the trust of the coaching staff, you’re not going to be in the lineup. Furthermore, the Devils are in a position where they are more focused on winning hockey games than the slow burn of developing a top prospect who hasn’t shown to this point he ‘gets it’. The Devils might’ve had that luxury a few years ago when wins and losses didn’t matter as much. They don’t now.
By pairing Holtz with Hischier and Meier, I think it eases the pressure of him having to play perfectly away from the puck, overthinking things, and slowing down in the process. We want the game to slow down for Holtz in the right way.....with him showing he can handle NHL speed. We don’t want the game slowing down because he’s literally slower than everyone else with the physical and mental aspect of the game.
With Holtz showing he can keep pace, I think we will see that pay dividends as he gets more comfortable with the speed of the NHL game. And once he gets comfortable, I think the skills portion of his toolkit that talent evaluators drool over will take over. He should be able to figure out where he needs to be to get his shot off and how tight the passing windows are to make a play.
Granted, this is one preseason game, but it is a step in the right direction. Holtz’s play also didn’t go unnoticed from a head coach who has brushed off Holtz’s “successes” in the past.
Compared to the tone/dismissive nature of Lindy when asked about Holtz in ‘22 preseason - big difference.— Devils Insiders (@DevilsInsiders) September 26, 2023
“We lost Halonen, so he double shifted at times, I thought he skated really well, scored a nice goal - that line was really good. He did a lot of good things in the game”
Now do it again.
And.....well, you get the idea.
Looking good in drills is one thing. Looking good in actual NHL games against actual NHL players is another.
Alexander Holtz still has plenty of work to do, but you can’t say the Devils aren’t trying to set him up for success. If he succeeds, it will be because of the work he put in and his natural talents. If he fails, there will be nobody to blame but himself.