Dawson's Creek: Mercer’s Contract Decision Looms Large

A contract extension securing Mercer's future in New Jersey is the final piece in the puzzle for the Devils offseason
Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils / Elsa/GettyImages

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written prior to the Devils signing of Tomas Tatar.

As this New Jersey summer reaches the dog days, the anticipation is growing for the imminent Dawson “Dawgson” Mercer contract extension with the Devils. 

This pivotal decision comes hot on the heels of the start of free agency on July 1st, where the Devils bolstered their defense with the signings of Brett Pesce & Brenden Dillon, and a trade for Jonathan Kovacevic. 

Now, securing Mercer's future in New Jersey is the final piece in the puzzle for a transformative offseason.

But Dawson is facing a creek with two branching paths: a short-term bridge deal that lacks security but increases his earning potential, or a long-term extension that locks him in as a core piece of the next Cup-contending Devils team. 

Mercer picked a bad year to regress, as his numbers dipped as his entry-level contract expired and he could cash in on his first significant raise. In the 2023-24 season, Mercer notched 20 goals and 13 assists, a notable decline from his breakout 2022-23 campaign where he recorded an impressive 27 goals and 29 assists. This downturn in production added a layer of intrigue to the contract negotiations, as both Mercer and Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald must weigh his potential against recent performance.

Using AFP Analytics NHL Contract Projections, we can see why the decision facing Tom Fitzgerald on Dawson Mercer is so critical to this year’s Devils and the team’s future cap sheet.

A two-year bridge deal is currently projected to cost the Devils $3.794 million against the cap. If he continues to exceed his 18th overall pick draft slot he could be in line for an even more lucrative deal when the bridge expires, potentially positioning himself to be compensated among the elite forwards in the league.

Going the short-term route would also leave some room under the cap for the Devils to add one more impact wing to their middle six. It probably doesn't leave enough room for a true top 6 wing like Vladimir Tarasenko (that would probably require moving out Nathan Bastian or another bottom 6 wing contract), but it could leave the Devils enough room to sign another wing like Daniel Sprong or James van Riemsdyk to bolster their middle six. Alternatively, it would allow them to bank a significant amount of cap space to use at the trade deadline.

The Devils have three second round picks next season they can use to explore the rental trade market at the deadline, and being able to take on a large cap hit on an expiring contract could give them a leg up in a potential bidding war, should someone like Nikolaj Ehlers shake loose.

Meanwhile, a six-year extension would come with a projected cap hit of $6.521 million. The Devils currently have just under $5 million following the Tomas Tatar contract, according to PuckPedia, so this projected figure puts the Devils over the cap ceiling. Going this route makes it likely that they’d have to move money out to bring back RFA Nolan Foote or any other free agent additions as a 13th forward.

Both contract options have their merits, but the choice could ultimately shape the Devils' future. A long-term contract signifies a clear vote of confidence in Mercer's ability to contribute to a Cup contender. Meanwhile, a bridge deal keeps options open for both Mercer and the Devils. It’s also possible that Mercer and the Devils could find a middle ground that buys out more free-agent years but doesn’t have the Devils approaching the cap ceiling.