While success on NHL ice eluded the New Jersey Devils this season, the franchise is still in a good place when it comes to the rebuild being undertaken right now. The pipeline is thick, more kids are on the way and the team's AHL affiliate in Utica won the North Division as the Comets get ready for the playoffs.
In the midst of all this, the Devils have recalled right winger Alexander Holtz from the Comets as New Jersey winds down its 2021-22 campaign with two more games on the schedule.
Holtz is one of the top prospects in New Jersey's system and while the 2020 first-rounder could enviously gaze at the success his buddy and draft mate Lucas Raymond had with the Detroit Red Wings this season, Holtz's path was clearly thought out by the Devils. Assistant GM and senior VP of hockey operations Dan MacKinnon laid that out for me a month ago when I visited the team in Newark.
"I don't think he's that far away," MacKinnon said. "We just want him to experience that full North American pro season with expectations with a team that should hopefully perform well in the post-season. Barring something unforeseen, he's ready to push for a spot next year."
And indeed, Holtz has made his mark in Utica. He's been one of the top rookie scorers in the AHL and one of the Comets' best producers, just behind veteran Chase De Leo and fellow Swede Fabian Zetterlund.
Zetterlund, a couple years older than Holtz, has also acted as a mentor in Utica.
"They live together," MacKinnon said. " 'Z' has been a great big brother to Alex. He likes to work out and he gets Alex in there with him early and they stay late. And in his own right, he's having a heckuva season. He's found a great confidence level on his off-side with his one-time release. He's a feisty competitor who, like Yegor Sharangovich and Mikey McLeod and Nathan Bastian, got better every year in the AHL."
Holtz also fits well into New Jersey's future: The Devils have a couple of cracking young centers in captain Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, but there are certainly jobs on their wings that are open now and in the future.
"We've collected a lot of good, young talent and we're allowing them to see which ones will rise to the top," said GM Tom Fitzgerald. "We know what's coming - we believe Holtz is going to be a really good scorer in this league, especially playing with one of the two kids."
Long known for his goal-scoring prowess, Holtz could be the trigger-man that makes New Jersey's offense more dangerous, though keeping pucks out of the net (and finding healthy netminders) has been New Jersey's biggest struggle of late.
Nonetheless, spending most of his first full North American season in Utica (he has already played seven games with Devils, the most recent on Jan. 4) allowed Holtz to get up to speed on the game over here and the fact he found success as the season went on has the Devils smiling.
"He has found another plane of confidence down there," MacKinnon said. "It's not just his scoring; his 200-foot play has come along, and it's the situational play (Utica coach) Kevin Dineen is comfortable putting him in. I said this to Fitzy the other day: I've seen a number of European teens come into the American League and have trouble scoring; he's had the most success in terms of how he impacts the game and that's exciting."
And if Holtz can have a big summer, perhaps that excitement will continue in the form of a Calder Trophy run next season.