Good morning, and happy Labor Day to all of our American and Canadian readers. If you are a frequent reader of All About the Jersey, you likely recognize my name. Since the 2017-18 season, I have been a game previewer and recapper, and I am now also going to be stepping in for our friend Mike, who has stepped away from the blog after 10 years of contributions. I will miss Mike’s weekly posts, as I can remember reading them from the earlier days of my Devils fandom.
As Mike pointed to in his post last Monday, the Devils became a real team in this past year. After years of clinging on, and then trying to claw back into relevance, the Devils’ slip down into the basement after their fluke playoff appearance in 2017-18 was not for nothing. One of the players who came out of the darkness, from the 2020 Draft, was Dawson Mercer. And this past season, Mercer was fifth in team scoring with 56 points, having just turned 21 during the season. While we look forward to watching his career, just how can Mercer turn these quality young seasons into something more? How can Dawson Mercer become elite? Let us get into it.
Dawson Mercer is a Fan Favorite for a Reason
Ever since he was selected in the 2020 NHL Draft, Dawson Mercer was fated to be a big part of the Devils’ recipe for success. As a center/wing combo, many Devils fans initially saw him as the potential third line center to play behind Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Instead, Mercer showed from early on that he had the potential to be more. I cannot imagine many thought he would quickly leapfrog Alexander Holtz, who was drafted 11 selections earlier in the same year, let alone post a strong rookie season and an even better sophomore year after making his debut at 19 years old.
Dawson only solidified his status as a fan favorite when he wrote an entry for The Players’ Tribune in April, encouraging Devils fans to “absolutely lose [their] minds when that puck drops” in the Playoffs. Mercer showed up in the playoffs as well, with three goals and four assists in their 12 games, which was tied for second on the team with Ondrej Palat and Nico Hischier. Fans are happy to know that players like Mercer buy into the rabid fandom just as much as they do, and it didn’t seem surprising that Mercer was one of the best playoff producers on the team despite his lack of experience.
The Implications of Mercer’s Third Season
Back in July, John did a dive into Mercer’s contract situation, as his Entry-Level Contract will expire after the 2023-24 season. And, as an RFA without arbitration rights, the ball is still well in Tom Fitzgerald’s court, as he can decide what kind of offer Mercer sees and when. John compared Mercer’s production to that of Nico Hischier and Matthew Tkachuk, as Nico took a long-term deal after a disappointing third season and Tkachuk took a bridge deal after a strong third season. Herein lies Tom Fitzgerald’s dilemma, as he has to think about whether he wants to let things play out, or if he wants to lock Mercer up in a similar manner to his midseason extension of Jack Hughes. Nico had signed his even earlier than Jack, as he signed his extension in October of 2019.
If Dawson Mercer’s 8-game goal streak and 12-game point streak is still fresh in your memory, you might understand why I think Tom Fitzgerald needs to get an extension done by early December, and preferably earlier. But would it be too much of a risk to commit early? Despite having areas to improve in, I think it would be worse to wait until after the season. Getting an extension done in October or November precludes the possibility of Mercer putting up 70 or 80 points and driving up the price of his extension. Is such a jump likely?
Dawson Mercer’s Analytic Profile
While Dawson Mercer has put up awesome production in his age-20 and age-21 seasons, with 42 and then 56 points in those seasons, he does not have the best analytical profile. In HockeyViz’s Synthetic Goals model, which seeks to estimate the theoretical individual impact on team goal differential per 1000 even strength minutes, 100 power play minutes, and 100 penalty kill minutes. Funnily enough, Mercer was naturally very close to this “‘reference basket’ of ice time,” as Micah McCurdy terms it in his explanation of the stat linked above. In the 2022-23 season, Mercer played just over 1,143 even strength minutes, 108 power play minutes, and just under 107 penalty kill minutes.
Given Mercer’s clear skill with the puck, which has been reflected with his solid finishing and setting impacts, he still has close to a league-average impact on play despite (slightly) negative impacts on offensive and defensive shot rates. Then, he has a net -0.1 special teams shot impact, as he was not an amazing penalty killer, offsetting his oddly limited power play time. His net penalty impact was -1.3, which probably pegs him a bit lower than he should be. Considering his sG would be -0.1 if his penalties impact was disregarded, you can say that Dawson Mercer is, as of the end of last season, a guy that does not tip the scale very much one way or the other.
But what does that mean on the ice? If you put him on a line with Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier, he will score when he gets the puck, he will set up goals, and he will not look out of place at all. He does not under or overproduce given the situations he plays in. But that also means it might not be the best idea to ask him to lift up weaker players - at least not at his age. He has the skill and ability to hang with the best, and there’s evidence that the rest is coming with time. According to the same model, he had an impact of -4.2 his rookie season, with his biggest improvement from year-to-year being his offensive shot impact (from -0.22 to -0.04 xGF/60).
Skill in the Right Moments
One of Dawson Mercer’s areas of struggle last season was his penalty kill performance. Of the Devils’ 13 skaters with 25 or more penalty killing minutes, Mercer had the worst GA/60 rate at 8.43, with the next lowest being a tie between Erik Haula and Jonas Siegenthaler at 7.73. His xGA/60 was also the team’s worst at 8.01, though Nico Hischier wasn’t far behind at 7.97. So why was he out there? What was Lindy Ruff thinking?
Here I credit Ruff for sticking with it, as Dawson Mercer, despite the team suffering in the defensive zone when he was on the ice in these situations, had the best xGF/60 on the team at 1.62. The team was able to convert a lot of those chances into goals as well, as their four goals lessened Mercer’s penalty kill differential to -11 in his 107 minutes. Herein lies the potential: if Ruff sticks with Mercer on the kill this upcoming season, be on the lookout for if Mercer becomes more defensively aware on the penalty kill. His greatest strength at the moment is his opportunism.
It’s games like this one he had in late February, when he was being linked in bogus Timo Meier rumors, that showed me how valuable he currently is, and how much better he can be. But outside of that 12-game streak, in which Mercer had 20 points, he struggled to get on the scoresheet before and after the streak. He only had two points in 10 games prior, with two points in 10 games after. The big difference was he was getting far more shots on goal after the point streak, with only 10 shots before the streak and 17 shots in the 10 games after.
Achieving Consistency and Becoming Elite
There are multiple pathways an NHL forward can take to reaching an elite level of play. On a regular basis, we see players who excel at setting up goals, players who finish at a far higher clip than expected, and players who dominate puck possession and influence the game across the whole sheet of ice. While we’ve seen that Mercer is not quite there in terms of influencing play on both ends of the ice, we have seen the extent of his skill. Below is Dawson Mercer’s shooting profile from HockeyViz.
Before Mercer started to go on a tear, he looked like a roughly average goal scorer. But for those of us who watched Mercer, we knew that there was something else there. Was scoring twice as many goals than expected a sustainable run? Not exactly, but I could definitely see Mercer consistently being a plus finisher if he plays in the top six. But seeing that his early shooting was a bit inconsistent before going on a tear, we cannot get too ahead of ourselves. Dawson Mercer needs to sustain his goal-scoring rather than get it all in bunches.
Rather than seeing Mercer lean completely into the skillful aspects of his offensive game, though, I want to see him play more confidently in transition this season. According to Corey Sznajder’s microstat tracking data, Mercer is a pretty average transition player, with a slightly above average quantity of defensive zone exits and a decently negative quantity of offensive zone entries, relative to the league average. However, he is a strong forechecker and largely seems to impact in-zone offense positively. Offensively, he does not create a lot of rebounds, and does not often pass for deflections or one-timers. He almost never passes for point shots — but I don’t have a problem with that. It is clear that Mercer leans into his skill — knocking home one-timers and pushing rush-style offense, which is the time for his skillset to shine.
Again, I appreciate Lindy Ruff sticking with Dawson Mercer on the penalty kill all season. While five-on-five and shorthanded defense is not necessarily the same skill, playing over a hundred minutes in that situation should have given Mercer the chance to work on his defensive zone play, including his stick work, positioning, and decision-making. If he can lessen his mistakes, clean up his positioning, and extend his opportunism to the defensive zone, he can be a dangerous player on all 200 feet of the ice. But Ruff did not have to stick with Mercer, who struggled in the role. Lindy could have ended the experiment early, justifying it with the fact they were in a playoff run, but he prioritized Mercer’s development as a long-term member of the team by continuing to give him those minutes. In the upcoming season, be on the lookout for Mercer becoming more defensively solid — and hopefully a better penalty killer.
Offensively, Mercer can stand to take matters into his own hands more often. When the puck gets on his stick, good things happen. When he was in juniors, and when he was a rookie in the NHL, Dawson took more of an active role in the transition game. In his second year in the NHL, however, Mercer took a bit of a backseat to the transition game as players like Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Tomas Tatar, and Jesper Bratt took care of taking the offensive zone more often than not. Obviously, Mercer does not have to worry about whether the team has someone to carry the puck up the ice, with the additions of Meier and Toffoli (way) more than offsetting the loss of Tatar.
But consider how dangerous the Devils’ top lines will be if they vary their puck carriers a little more often. While Mercer is great at waiting for a pass to bury, he can open up teammates like Meier and Hughes even more by giving them the liberty to play off-puck more often. To set them up for one-timers or deflections, rather than ask them to be the primary puck carrying focus that the opposing defense can zero in on, can only stand to benefit everyone in the lineup. In addition, Mercer being more aggressive with the puck and trusting his shooting ability more could lead to a goal-scoring explosion in his third season. Here, he should watch and learn from guys like Meier and Toffoli, who excel at pushing for shots. In upping his shot volume, Mercer can become an even more valuable top six forward.
Like I said, I think Tom Fitzgerald should be thinking about giving Dawson Mercer an extension offer early this season. Rather than let him score over 70 points and turn his upcoming $7 million extension to something bigger — or worse — a bridge deal, lock him up and let him focus on competing for the Stanley Cup in 2024. For what it’s worth, I think the baseline for him this season is 30 goals and 65 points. I would not be surprised to see something even better production-wise. Of course, I will always be keeping an eye on how he’s improving in other areas as well.
How do you think Dawson Mercer will do in the 2023-24 season? Do you think he’s poised for another breakthrough like he had late in the 2022-23 season, or do you think he’s approaching his ceiling? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.
Thanks, also, to Micah Blake McCurdy and his HockeyViz site, as well as Corey Szjnader’s All Three Zones. Their work is great for quantifying what we see with our eyes, and I recommend their sites to anyone interested in hockey analytics and tracking.