New Jersey Devils’ Development Of Dawson Mercer Secures Forward Core

Dawson Mercer #18 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his first NHL goal at 5:02 of the first period against the Seattle Kraken at the Prudential Center on October 19, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Dawson Mercer #18 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his first NHL goal at 5:02 of the first period against the Seattle Kraken at the Prudential Center on October 19, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Despite a(nother) dismal New Jersey Devils season, Dawson Mercer’s emergence as a legit NHL player could have major ramifications throughout the organization’s depth chart going forward. At the ripe, old age of 20-years-old, Mercer was the only Devil to play in all 82 games and his 42 points (17g-25a) were good enough for sixth on the team.

Adding Mercer to the collection of young forward talent in New Jersey – Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Yegor Sharangovich – gives the Devils five building blocks. These are five big pieces of the puzzle that is their championship quest. How GM Tom Fitzgerald fills out the rest of that puzzle remains to be seen, but adding Mercer to that group definitely happened ahead of schedule. And it likely changed some planning.

"“It’s a good problem to have to be quite honest. Where that young gentleman had started and where he ended, I didn’t think that would be possible. I thought he would see some games this year,” Fitzgerald said during his end-of-season media availability, “but really help in Utica, and Utica helping him grow his game. As we saw, the staff that we had (here) helped really push him forward to the point where he never took his foot off the pedal: from rookie camp, to the main camp, to the start of the season. He showed he was pushing to play every single game, and it was a hard decision for our coaches. They couldn’t take him out of the lineup.”"

If the season had gone differently, if the Devils weren’t decimated by injuries and sickness – we likely would have seen Mercer sit for a game or two in the middle of the season when he really hit that rookie wall – zero goals and five assists in 14 games from Jan. 2 to Feb.7. Or even at the end of the season when he went goalless for 18 games before netting one in the season finale. The kid battled through it all, and his demeanor never changed. Especially at the end of the season, he still had energy in his game and was doing other things well when Hughes and Hischier were absent.

“After being through the full 82, you gain so much more knowledge and really understand how the process is of playing in the NHL. This is where I want to be for a long time,” Mercer said at the end of his rookie season.

"“There are just times where you are starting to wear down and the season feels long. Next year, I want to eliminate as much of that as I can and play as good as I can in all 82 games again. I want to come back stronger. That will for sure be my main focus. We want to still be playing at this time next year.”"

Mercer already had his exit meetings with Fitzgerald and Head Coach Lindy Ruff when he met with the media. It became clear quickly he had an idea of how they felt. When New Jersey’s GM spoke a few days later and emphasized what he wants his young, rising star to work on this offseason.

"“We talk about our young talent, we talk about having the right people (in place) to help them continue to grow that part of their game vs. stifling it in areas. Dawson, I think really benefitted from that. But there’s a lot more. He knows from our exit meeting: Strength. Strength. Strength,” said Fitzgerald."

New Jersey Devils
Alexander Holtz #10 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images) /

"“We have a lot of the same, upfront. We’ve got some nice players, some really nice players, talented players, but I think we have a lot of the same; I don’t want a lot of the same. It’s time to start mixing and matching, and building a team,” added Fitzgerald. “Especially upfront, and be harder to play against. Heavier skill, not just dump pucks in, but straight-line players are important to successful teams. We do have young talent, we all know that. But that’s the exciting part for me as the manager in building what I believe is not only a team that can compete to get into the playoffs but also compete in the playoffs.”"

So who did he mean when he said ‘we have a lot of the same’? Fitz enters perhaps his biggest offseason to date as the team’s GM. Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod, Jesper Boqvist – they all play sort of the same game. Who proved themselves most worthy, or most versatile this past season? There are kids coming up through the system that play the same style. And then there is Alexander Holtz, the Swedish sniper who could be one of the missing pieces to the puzzle in New Jersey.

Next. Evaluating Some Options Devils Have At 2nd Overall. dark

Fitzgerald had patience with Boqvist; actually, with both Jespers, and it paid off this season as they both had career years. He’s shown patience with Holtz thus far. Next season, he will be given every chance to make the Devils’ opening night roster.

“It was an extremely positive year with Alex. Coming over last year and getting a sample size of what the AHL is, the close quarters of the rink, and the game within the game really helps win the battle at the end of the day – how less time and space you have. I thought that was very important in the 8 or 9 games he played last year,” Fitzgerald replied when asked about the development of the 7th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Holtz had two assists in nine NHL games this season, 51 points (26g-25a) in 52 AHL games, and is currently in the playoffs with the Utica Comets.

“I thought he had a really good camp. With that being said, the AHL and having patience with a player is very much a development tool. Having that patience with Alex I believe paid off and will pay it forward as well. Expectations for him are we expect him to come in and challenge for a job (next season). He now understands the details that I speak all the time about – wall play, puck management, having a good stick.”

“We all know what he does well,” the GM said with a chuckle, “we don’t have anybody in the organization who shoots the puck like him, and he has very good vision. Where we need to see some development is his first couple of steps, his anticipation. Again, be stronger on pucks along the wall. This season couldn’t have gone any better for Alex Holtz in my eyes.”

“These are good problems to have when you are developing young players; you’re drafting well and you’re developing young players.”

Add an NHL-caliber Holtz to the group of Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Mercer, and Sharangovich and that’s a pretty nice six-pack of young guns. Now Fitzgerald has to find some NHL-caliber snipers to add to his talented flock of forwards.

New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier #13 and Dawson Mercer #18 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

As for Mercer, that kid will play wherever you ask him to and he’s probably going to do it well. he can be the third center behind 86 and 13, or he can move up to their wing in a pinch, on the power play, etc. If he was this good at 20-years-old, how good will he be in three, or four years when he matures and adds some man strength?

“To be honest I liked playing both positions, I’ve done both about 50-50 for my whole career. I think that’s a great tool that I have, to have that versatility. There are details in my game that I want to work on no matter where they want me to play. Things always change throughout the year, we saw that this season. I want to make sure I’m better on face-offs if that opportunity presents itself where I’m playing center, I want to make sure I’m prepared for that,” Mercer told Pucks & Pitchforks when we asked which he prefers or thinks he will play more of going forward.

“If I’m a winger, the centerman gets taken out sometimes, I want to make sure that I can win that face-off too. I’m pretty comfortable in both places so wherever they feel that it is best for the team to win that game I’ll play that position.”

He added that the group welcoming him, and making him feel at ease – right from the start of camp – was a big part of why he was able to be so successful jumping from the QMJHL to the NHL and made it look seamless.

New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (18): (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports) /

“I feel very comfortable with all of the guys here. Dougie was a big help at the beginning of the year. I sat next to Nico in the locker room and he helped me out a lot, and I try to model my game after his,” added Mercer, who will represent Canada at the upcoming World Championships.

“He has that 200-foot game, and I have a lot of respect for how he plays. To learn from him and for him to be comfortable enough to talk and help me out this season has been great. He’s a good friend of mine. Jack and I, we’re the same age, but he has a couple of years of experience on me. Our friendship has grown and we just have a great time together. We’re not afraid to talk to each other about our games and how we can really help this team for the future.”

Pucks And Pitchforks
Pucks And Pitchforks /

Want your voice heard? Join the Pucks And Pitchforks team!

Write for us!

“It was great that I played in all 82, but nothing is ever guaranteed.”

Devils fans know that, all too well. In the words of Harvey Dent: ‘The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.’