As a fan you only want two things out of the preseason – good health, and younger players giving you a reason to get excited. Through the first two games of the exhibition season the Devils have accomplished both, scoring twelve goals in their first two games – many of them by younger players. Especially in Wednesday’s preseason opener against the Caps where every goalscorer was 23 and younger after Yegor Sharangovich, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer and Alex Holtz all scored in a 5-4 win against the Caps. While the first three guys are already established top six options that the Devils are looking for even more production from this year, the latter two were both 2020 first round picks looking to either join Sharangovich, Hischier and Hughes on the team, or at least pull themselves up the organizational depth chart.
Both Mercer and Holtz are still just nineteen years old, and both have different – but equally necessary – skill sets this team needs. Could Mercer wind up filling the Devils’ hole at third-line center even sooner than expected? He at least seems like he’s got a nose for the net with goals in his first two games so far, and a handful of other great chances that he couldn’t cash in on. Although there’s always the concern about rushing guys, mistakes the Devils acknowledge they’ve made in recent years with guys like Pavel Zacha, Blake Speers and Stefan Matteau – sometimes guys just prove they’re ready, and Mercer’s scouting report says he plays a 200-foot game, which translates to maybe earning a spot in the NHL sooner rather than later. It would be fitting if Mercer plays in the NHL in his age 20 (he turns 20 in late October) season a la another first-round pick with high IQ that played center for the Devils who retired this offseason. Mercer has been compared to Travis Zajac in some Devils fan circles – even that kind of career would be a win for a first-round pick, never mind if Mercer actually wound up being more consistent offensively.
Holtz of course has an NHL ready shot which of course this team needs badly, but is the rest of his game there yet? He’s certainly making a case for a longer look from the staff with points in his first two games. Like Mercer, he’s still 19 and doesn’t even turn 20 until January. I’m sure the Devils will probably be a little more cautious with him given his lack of production last year in the Swedish league and the AHL in his first post-draft season while Mercer was quite productive in the Q during his first post-draft year. Sometimes guys do take big jumps in one offseason though, ask Sharangovich who went from a pre-pandemic afterthought to integral top six forward in one shortened season.
It’s harder for me to get into the ‘veteran guy on a PTO trying to earn a spot’ camp story considering the youth movement and where this franchise is at the moment, but clearly a guy like Jimmy Vesey needs to play well just to earn a job and stay in the NHL. After scoring a brace in a scrimmage, he added another goal in last night’s 7-1 rout of the Rangers against one of his former teams. In fact he had three seasons with the Rangers where he scored 50 goals but still his career never quite panned out as much as some thought it might when he joined New York as an UDFA out of Harvard, and he’s bounced around the league as bottom six depth since. Even young teams can use guys like Vesey though, especially since you have a healthy scratch or two every night and don’t want younger forwards serving that role. Plus if he does draw into the lineup more than expected, he could help on the PK which was an unmitigated disaster last year.
Those are guys who the preseason matters to, not so much Dougie Hamilton although you wouldn’t be able to tell by his icetime last night. Guess you can’t really be in shape to play 25 minutes a night unless you practice that way though. Even more important than how much he plays, or the goal he scored last night is the fact that early in his Devil tenure he’s assuming a mentorship role with at least one of the most important future Devils in Mercer.
Hamilton himself seems like a guy who’s just totally at ease with himself and who he is. I didn’t see his first intermission interview but I heard he was doing it shirtless – perhaps the first instance of Dougie being Dougie as a Devil.
I didn’t watch much of the Caps game, I did watch a good chunk last night – because I went for my first trip to the Rock in nineteen months. Although preseason games bore me at this point (and even last night I only stayed for just over half of it), that was a case where I had to go just for the sake of going. My prediction of it being a bigger crowd was wrong a few days ago though – there was plenty of social distancing last night for me since nobody else was in my row, the row in front of me, the seats directly behind me or the row across from me and I’m not exactly sitting in the upper corners. It was an announced attendance of just over 10,000 which was fine by me.
Part of the reason I wanted to go is just to get used to the trip again and see what’s changed in the building. I missed my normal exit to go toward Newark but that was just laziness, I was able to get there in a roundabout way and got home just fine, my regular parking lot was not only still open but the same guy who collects the money and gives out the tickets was still there too – at least one slice of normalcy I suppose. I can’t say the same for the PA guy, who is changing for the first time since the move to the Rock due to some off-ice issues with long-time PA guy Kevin Clark. Apparently tonight was an audition for one of the three finalists, with the other preseason games being done by the other two. Whatever, that’s gonna take some getting used to just like going from Bob Arsena to Clark at the Meadowlands did.
I’ve already gone through my displeasure over the lack of a vaccine mandate but certainly it wasn’t an issue last night with the sparse crowd. Neither was getting in, one of the Devils’ e-mails warned it could take up to 45 minutes to get in. Maybe that’ll be true for the home opener in two weeks but last night it was more like 45 seconds. What’s more annoying for me in theory than in actuality (since I rarely will get concessions at the arena) is the new cashless policy. I mean really guys, you should want people to have more ways to pay, not fewer. I guess it saves them time and money not dealing with cash and they can pass it off as some health service eyewash. It’ll probably be a nightmare the first few games for people that do want to get stuff at the arena since not everyone will know about the new no-cash policy. Hopefully they don’t have a machine issue at any point…
It was certainly nice to be back in any case, my only hope last night was to hear the goal horn at least once, which the Devils took care of with three quick tallies in the first and another in the second. Certainly it was worth watching and always good to win – though at 4-1 part of my motivation for leaving late in the second was just that nothing else was going to happen that was particularly meaningful on the positive end in a preseason game, plus I thought the new-look Rangers (who now have a public mandate to get tough) might start to turn the game into Slapshot and drag it on. I got home in time to see the last two goals on TV anyway. My first full game can be in two weeks when it counts.