NEWARK, NJ - The rebuilding New Jersey Devils are far from a finished product, but when they put it all together right now, it's an impressive sight. The Devils blew past the Stanley Cup contender Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday and while New Jersey had to spring back from a 3-0 deficit to get the 5-3 win, the Devils were buzzing all night.
Much has been made about the elevated play of center Jack Hughes recently - and rightly so. Hughes looks as dangerous as he did in his NTDP days (and if you're really hardcore, his stint with the U16 Toronto Marlboros) and it's good to see him live up to the hype and potential that made him the first overall pick in 2019.
But let's talk about one of Hughes' linemates right now, 20-year-old Dawson Mercer. A kid who unexpectedly went straight from major junior to the NHL and has been one of New Jersey's top scoring threats this season.
"It's his ability to make plays in tight places," said Devils coach Lindy Ruff. "His ability to get away from physical situations just with how crafty he is - he can be in what looks like a limited area of ice and still make a play. He sees the ice well and has the confidence to hang on to the puck when most people would give it away."
Though Mercer did force his way onto the Devils' roster this fall, it's also fair to point out that his two-way game and blend of skill and energy did make him a pretty good candidate to jump the line since players like that can fit up and down a lineup. But it's still impressive to see how good Mercer has been for New Jersey as the Devils build the foundation of what could be a very exciting core in the coming years.
"We have a young group and everyone gets along," Mercer said. "Every day we show up to the rink, we have a good time. It's great having guys my own age. We're all starting our careers around the same time and we have the same mindset of the newer generation, playing fast, skilled and still a little tough. It's been a great time with these guys."
And to think it should get better. The Devils have been gutted by key injuries this year and the big win over the Avs came without captain Nico Hischier in the lineup - a player who is only 23 years old himself. Toss in AHL Utica star Alexander Holtz and University of Michigan wonder Luke Hughes and you've got a fun bunch to look forward to in Newark in the future.
Right now Hughes and Mercer are carrying the torch and they can make magic together.
"He's such a skilled forward," Mercer said. "He moves his feet so well laterally and when he has the puck, I know I have to get into open ice so he can find me. He can do it all: playmaking, goal-scoring; he's shown a lot this year."
The key right now is for the group to build confidence (and refine the details in their individual games, for sure). The win over Colorado, coupled with a previous OT victory over St. Louis sealed by veteran D-man Dougie Hamilton, points the team in the right direction, even if they still find themselves near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.
"We just need to make sure we're coming out of close games with a win or at least a point," Mercer said. "We have some games where we just don't finish and we're learning from that. In a couple years when all of us are more experienced, it'll be great. But we want to make sure that comes sooner than later."