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Is Dawson Mercer Better as a Winger or a Center?

Dawson Mercer had a great game in a big win over Washington on Wednesday. He lined up at wing, a contrast to when he was centering a line earlier this season. This post looks at data to answer the question: Is Mercer better as a winger or center?

NHL: DEC 29 Devils at Senators
Play wing, Dawson! Or rather, play him at wing, Lindy!
Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the reasons why the New Jersey Devils were able to get some glorious vengeance in a 6-3 win over the Washington Capitals was an excellent game from Dawson Mercer. Mercer put up two goals and three shots; scoring the team’s third and fifth goal. He has come a bit of ways from going pointless in his first 10 games to now sit at 12 goals and 20 points now that he and the team are 36 games into their season. Mercer was fantastic as one of Nico Hischier’s wingers against Washington. It was likely a result of head coach Lindy Ruff just needing to fill in Ondrej Palat’s spot in the lineup as the veteran was injured. It worked out wonderfully. It also made me think how Mercer has done away from being a center, something Ruff also tried multiple times earlier in the season.

My personal thought was that Mercer was not a very effective as a center. A game like Wednesday’s win only reinforces that in my mind. Mercer has played most of the 200 games in his NHL career as a winger. He has been successful mostly as a winger. He really should not have to play center unless there are no better options than Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Michael McLeod, and even Erik Haula on either of the top three lines. Yet, we have continued to see it for stretches at a time in this season.

However, I am not satisfied with my opinion. Let us look at some data and see if it is true or not. How has Mercer played in this season as a center? How about when he is not taking draws? Let us find out to see which Mercer has been better: as a center and as a winger.

Definitions

In my view, centers take faceoffs. hockey tactics really do not look at forwards as two wingers and a center. The phrasing is usually F1, F2, and F3 based on how the coaches define those players. Centers and wingers are expected to move into spaces in all three zones to make the associated plays. Under Lindy Ruff in New Jersey, usually the third forward is in front of the net when they swarm/overload in the defensive zone. That is usually not a center. Further, Ruff (and many other coaches) change players and lines in games frequently. This is all the more reason to use faceoff counts as to define whether someone is a center or not in the game. And so that is how I am defining whether or not Mercer was a center for a game.

How many faceoffs is up for debate. For the purposes of this post, I am using any game where Mercer took six or more faceoffs in a game to call him a center. I think if you take more than five faceoffs in a game, then I think the coaches are using you as a center to some degree. Sure, players can and do get thrown out at the dot and a winger has to step in. But it is uncommon to see the same guy get thrown out that much even if it feels that way some nights.

Dawson Mercer’s 13 Games as a Center

Using six draws as my filter, I found that Mercer played center in 13 of his 36 games played this season. Mostly in November and December with a notable break from mid-November to December. It began shortly before his point-drought that started this season ended. We have not seen it since the embarrassing loss to Anaheim. Here is a summary of what those 13 games were and how Mercer did per NHL.com:

Dawson Mercer’s 13 games of playing center, defined as taking 6 or more faceoffs in a game.
Dawson Mercer’s 13 games of playing center, defined as taking 6 or more faceoffs in a game.
NHL.com

Mercer did not win a whole lot of his draws. A pair of 6-for-11 nights was the most successful from a percentage standpoint. More often than not, he ended up losing more draws than he took. I will point out that Mercer ended his point-drought in Chicago. That led to, well, an increase in production. He put up a five goals and seven points across these 13 games. Curiously, his rate of shooting fell off after the Winnipeg game when lining up in the middle. After that 4-shot night in Manitoba, he failed to register more than 3 in a game and was even held shotless in a game. At least Mercer was disciplined.

Of course, since we know the dates, how did the Devils do when Mercer took a shift in those 13 games? Thanks to the game data at Natural Stat Trick, here are those 5-on-5 stats. The focus is on 5-on-5 here as that is the most common situation in hockey and it would be where Mercer would play at his position more than anything else.

5-on-5 on-ice data of Dawson Mercer’s 13 games of playing center, defined as taking 6 or more faceoffs in a game.
5-on-5 on-ice data of Dawson Mercer’s 13 games of playing center, defined as taking 6 or more faceoffs in a game.
Natural Stat Trick

The good news is that the general run of play was positive over all 13 games when Mercer played down the middle. A 53% CF% is good and you can see plenty of green in those columns for Corsi (shot attempts). The bad news is almost everything else. From a shots perspective, the Devils have only out-shot opponents in 5-on-5 play with Mercer in four out of these thirteen games. Collectively, the Devils were out-shot by 13 when Mercer was playing in this spot. If the attempts are favorable and the shots are not, then it suggests an issue of what is being allowed. Which the expected goals model represents and is used here in place of raw chance and high-danger chance counts. There, the Devils generated more favorable opportunities to score in five out of 13 games. Some of those games in the red (below 50%) were really low. All thirteen combined yielded the Devils being out-done here, which means they were out-chanced.

The big red flag that I am sure the coaches notices was the goal differential. Being out-shot by 13 is defensible. Being out-done in xG by 1.43 is not good but that is just a model. Actual goal differential was a -7 with Mercer taking a shift. Sure, the goaltenders are what they are this season (not good) and the Devils’ defensive zone play is aggressive to a fault. But only out-scoring the opposition just twice out of thirteen games in 5-on-5 does not bode well for the experiment and so it did not last. Goals for and against are not going to be necessarily a single player’s fault but it was ugly for #91 when he lined up at center.

The last column is individual expected goals for, which is how much xG a player’s shot attempts generated. Mercer was consistently below 0.5 ixGF in all of these games save for his 5-shot game against the Capitals on November 10. He ended up below 0.10 ixGF in five of these thirteen games and matched that low bar once. Combined, it yielded 2.83 ixGF. While Mercer scored 5 goals in all situations across these thirteen games, he scored two of them in 5-on-5. So he was more or less in line with the model.

What about his linemates? I checked the Forward Lines section in each of these games at Natural Stat Trick. Between injuries and head coach Lindy Ruff trying to figure things out, Mercer did not have consistent wingers in these thirteen games. Across all 13 games, Alexander Holtz ended up playing next to Mercer more than most with 9 games. Holtz has played better than his usage suggests (Fun Fact: he has more points this season than the Michael McLeod as of January 4, 2024). But the combination has not yielded a ton. Not from November 14 to December 17 on this list. Mercer had Timo Meier next to him in 7 games, when he was fairly cold pre-injury and post-injury. Mercer had five games mostly next to Ondrej Palat, four next to Tyler Toffoli, three with Erik Haula, and one each with Jesper Bratt (the Washington game), Jack Hughes (it was the San Jose game), Curtis Lazar (secondary in the San Jose game), and Nathan Bastian (secondary in the game against Our Hated Rivals). If you want to fault some of Mercer’s uglier stat lines on some combinations that just did not work well, then you can. Consistency was not really something Mercer got when playing in the middle.

All together, Mercer at center saw him produce but not a whole lot. The Devils did not play particularly well when Mercer took a shift in those thirteen games. Even if they won the attempt battle, they often lost the shot battle, the expected goal battle, and the actual goal battle. And Mercer did not win most of his draws in all but three games either.

A Summary Look

Since we know what games Mercer played in and we have data from those games, we can subtract out those from his totals this season to see how it looks to Mercer when he was not necessarily lining up at center. First, the basic NHL.com data

Basic summary stats of Mercer as Center vs. Mercer as Winger
Basic summary stats of Mercer as Center vs. Mercer as Winger
NHL.com

This is a basic summary but it is closer than what I expected. Mercer’s rate of production is only a little bit better as a winger than as a center, 0.565 to 0.587. His rate of shooting actually went down as a winger compared to as a center. He also took three more penalties when he was not a center.

However, I do want to point out that those 23 games as a not-center included the first nine games of his season where Mercer was in a big slump for ten games. He had triple-zeroes on his game log and a whopping nine shots with four shotless-games in October. This means that all seven goals and thirteen points as a winger - plus 23 shots - came in 14 games. That better reflects how he has been playing more recently and is a massive difference over his combined games at center.

The on-ice data in 5-on-5 shows a starker difference between the two Mercers even with his season-starting ten-game slump.

5-on-5 On-ice Stats of Mercer as Center vs. Mercer as Winger
5-on-5 On-ice Stats of Mercer as Center vs. Mercer as Winger
Natural Stat Trick

Even with the slump, the on-ice data is almost all better with Mercer not playing center than when he took six or more faceoffs in a game. The only exception is in CF%, where a +21 difference as a center became a -2 difference in attempts when Mercer was not a center. I think most would be fine with that with the gains in the other categories.

While the Devils have still been outshot when Mercer took a shift, they were close to evening-out in the games where Mercer lined up at winger, a big improvement over when Mercer lined up at center. A -4 difference is better than a -13 difference in shots. The expected goals model at NST - which is driven by chances - was a lot more favorable in the games where Mercer was not taking 6+ draws. The Devils prevailed in expected goals. As well as in actual goals. The Devils have out-scored their opponents in 5-on-5 play when Mercer was not lining up at center; a far cry better than being outscored by seven goals when he was at center.

The ixGF is also another point in Mercer’s favor. While the rate of ixGF per game went down when Mercer was a center - remember that ten-game slump mostly had Mercer at wing - Mercer has out-performed it much more as a center. Mercer has scored two goals in 5-on-5 play when he was a center. He has seven in 5-on-5 play as a winger. Most of that is recent; five were in his last six games. Still, Mercer has beaten the model as a winger whereas he was behind it when lining up at center.

As a final bit, I will point out that Mercer playing wing allows him to play off Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Michael McLeod. In fact, Mercer has more 5-on-5 ice time with McLeod than Hughes or Hischier. Still, it has been productive on the scoresheet as his shifts with McLeod and Hughes have yielded more 5-on-5 points than his most common teammate, Timo Meier (2, the Meier slump has not been good). The time with The Big Deal and the captain in the run of play has been positive as well. Not to mention being a winger means he can play opposite Haula or Palat, which means Mercer can provide a different element from his toolbox of skills. Those teammate combinations at 5-on-5 have also been positive - which means it has been positive for the Devils.

Conclusion: Mercer is Better as a Winger

It is good to see what you have in a young, yet experienced given he just played his 200th NHL game, player. Knowing whether someone can play a different position and how well they can play there is useful when injuries, performance, or something else requires it. Versatility is not a bad thing in of itself.

That said, Mercer may be capable of playing in the middle but he has been more effective this season when he was not taking a bunch of draws and lining up more at the wing position. Even with a scoring slump where nine out of the ten games saw him line up at a wing, Mercer as a winger has an edge in raw points over Mercer as a center. In terms of on-ice data in 5-on-5 play, the games where Mercer played center often saw the Devils out-shot, out-chanced via the xG model at NST, and out-scored. Mercer’s own shot attempts were expected to score just shy of three goals and he scored two. As a winger, it has been better except in shooting attempts, but even that was close to even at 49.8% CF%. Further, the games that saw Mercer line up at center often had him with Holtz, Meier, and a combination of other forwards that did not always work well. When Mercer was lined up more at wing, it allowed him to play more with McLeod, Hughes, and Hischier - which has been more effective for Mercer and, by extension, the Devils when those shifts happened. There have been more positives with Mercer playing wing more than playing as a pivot.

Provided Mercer keeps putting up numbers, both on the scoresheet and in the run of play at 5-on-5, then the difference between Mercer the Center and Mercer the Winger will become even starker. This is a case where the data lines up with what I thought and what you may have thought. With 13 games of information out of 36 this season, it is enough to conclude that Mercer really should only play center if Lindy Ruff and his staff do not have a better option at hand. Mercer should be at wing and the coaches should work from there to get the most out of the 22-year old forward. For now, I hope Ruff keeps him with Nico Hischier and Erik Haula. The trio did so well in the win against Washington a major reason why they beat the Caps - they cannot be split up so soon.

Now I want to know what you think about Dawson Mercer. Was there something I missed in looking at Mercer: center vs. winger? Is there a case where you would want Mercer to play center? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Mercer in the comments. Thank you for reading.