The New Jersey Devils have gotten off to a slower start in the 2023-24 season. Not only how they start games but also the overall results. Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and Dawson Mercer are yet to score any points through three games, while Alexander Holtz, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Toffoli are without their first goals of the season.
Toffoli, in particular, has struggled as a shooter and as a finisher in front of goal. The former Calgary Flames winger is 608th in the NHL in goals above expected, with a disappointing -1.7 mark. The only players with worse figures are Lukas Reichel, Connor Bedard, Filip Forsberg, and Matthew Tkachuk. That’s some good company, and progression to the mean is certainly in order, but it’s not a great start.
The difference between Holtz and his high-flying teammates is that the 21-year-old is averaging the third-lowest ice time per game of any Devils player – his average of 11:07 is higher than only Nathan Bastian’s 9:36 and Curtis Lazar’s 8:31.
Holtz played virtually the entire training camp and preseason alongside Hischier and Meier, only for head coach Lindy Ruff to split them up out of the blue. That line wasn’t the best line you’ll ever see play hockey, but they weren’t awful, either. But based on the start of the regular season, we can now deduct that this is a Hischier and Meier problem, not a Holtz problem.
Instead, the Swede has been stuck on a third unit comprised of himself, Palat, and Erik Haula, and while Haula has been the star of that show, he’s also been given regular opportunities on special teams and at 5-on-5. On the other hand, Holtz is seldom given opportunities in any situation and has been consistently aligned on the wrong circle during his power play shifts.
The good news is that Ruff might be noticing the youngster’s improving play. Holtz is arguably a faster player than Toffoli is, and he’s a better playmaker than most give him credit for. With the Devils trailing big against the Florida Panthers, Ruff shortened his bench and kept Lazar, Meier, and John Marino seated for virtually the whole period.
Holtz’s path to more ice time with the Devils
This time last year, Holtz would have fallen victim to that fate, but the 2020 No. 7 overall pick managed to outlast his more experienced counterparts on a bad night. And he rewarded his coach’s trust with a neat pass under duress that ended up setting the stage for his own scoring chance, only to be narrowly denied by a stick in front. Seconds later, he earned a secondary assist as Michael McLeod finished the play in tight.
It was that particular moment where Holtz came through on a board battle and set the Devils up with a chance when it mattered the most. Hustle, hockey IQ, determination – whatever you want to call it – it was there against Florida, and it’s been there the whole season.
Coach Ruff has proven to be very trigger-happy when it comes to switching up struggling lines, and that alone could see Holtz take the step up from the third line. He’s not really suited for the crash-and-bang style that Haula and Palat frequently employ, but his deadly shot could buy some cheap goals for a Devils team in desperate need of some.
Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt have also been white-hot to start the year, and it’s very likely that if Holtz got an extended run with one (or both) of them, the goals will start to come. Whatever comes of this slow start, it’s been clear that No. 10 deserves a chance to make it happen in the Devils’ top six.