The Devils’ Prospect Challenge games in Buffalo are coming to a close today and with the full team training camp now just days away, most of the players from the prospect games will take a back seat and head to Utica, Adirondack, and a number of other places to play out their seasons. A handful of players from the Prospect Challenge, though, will head into camp with the goal of landing in New Jersey for the start of the NHL season. Among those players are guys like recent #2 overall selection Simon Nemec, more seasoned prospects Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, and Nikita Okhotiuk, and then 2020 first-rounder Alexander Holtz. Though others will jockey for depth chart positioning and being first on the call-up list, those five are probably the primary candidates for inclusion on the roster out of the group that attended the Prospect Challenge in Buffalo.
The four defensemen mentioned in the group above are all likely battling for a spot on the third pairing (potentially in rotation with Brendan Smith), meaning that they are unlikely to play a critical role for the defensive group in the season ahead. The lone forward of the group above, Holtz, will potentially be vying for a larger role within the forwards group if he can up his game from what we saw last year. Gerard asked if this was the year that Holtz can stick a few weeks back and today, I want to dig into what kind of implications it could have for the Devils if he can take a leap and become an effective NHL trigger man here in his draft +3 seasons.
The Devils were a team that showed flashes of being a high-powered offense last season, with Jack Hughes (when healthy), Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier being the lead offensive facilitators for the team. The Devils exploded for seven goals six times in the 2021-22 season, a feat that only the high-flying 2000-01 Devils and the 1992-93 Devils had achieved for the franchise since the 1980s (when goalies effectively did not exist). The Devils did not have the most consistent offense, finishing 19th in goals scored, partially due to injuries, a terrible power play, and also the general inconsistency of a young roster, but the framework for a game-breaking offense certainly seems to be in square.
With some of the primary play-drivers mostly figured out in New Jersey, the key now seems to be finding a variety of players who can regularly put pucks in the back of the net. The Devils went ahead and added Ondrej Palat this offseason to bolster things on the wing and they also traded Pavel Zacha for veteran Erik Haula to shore things up down the middle. Yegor Sharangovich and his wicked release represents the best goal-scoring punch outside the big three and Dawson Mercer figures to be a significant contributor in his second season as well, but things start to fade quickly after that in terms of depth of scoring.
Tomas Tatar and Andreas Johnsson are still around as bounce back candidates, but it’s tough to rely on either for a consistent contribution. A healthy Miles Wood could chip in some offense as well, but after a completely lost season in 2021-22, it’s tough to know what to expect from him. Since the Devils don’t really have an elite goal-scorer on the roster, they are going to have to have more than six guys who can reliably contribute on offense. Haula arguably makes it seven, but injuries are an inevitability, and the Devils could use more shooters regardless of the health situation.
Enter Alexander Holtz. Holtz was a top-ten selection in the 2020 NHL Draft chiefly because of his high-end shot and potential as a goal-scoring weapon. After a so-so draft+1 season in Sweden, Holtz made the jump to North America last season for his draft+2. He was unable to stick in a couple of short stints with the big club but he made the most of his time in Utica, leading the Comets in goals as a 19/20 year old in his first full season with the club. Holtz actually led all U21 AHLers in 5v5 primary points per game and was second among the draft+2 players in that category (behind only Jack Quinn). Even if he didn’t quite fit into the picture in New Jersey in 2021-22 season, it was still an encouraging developmental season for Holtz.
Now, with that big AHL season under his belt, Holtz will surely be aching to make the Devils’ roster out of camp. If he performs in a way that leads to that outcome during the preseason, I would think the Devils will be more than happy to reward him with a spot in the lineup on opening night. As with any prospect, the Devils can’t necessarily bank on Holtz making that leap this year, but his abilities as a scorer make him a major wild card for this 2022-23 Devils team. If he can find a way to stick on one of the wings of Hischier or Hughes, he could be a big part of allowing this team to take the next step offensively. His services could also be extremely valuable to a power play that will be looking to forge a new non-inept identity under new assistant Andrew Brunette.
Further, if Holtz makes the lineup, it makes the whole depth chart a bit more crowded (in a good way). A guy like Mercer could theoretically be pushed into a third line role alongside Haula, giving that line some extra juice and creating bigger matchup issues for opponents. It would also make it so that the Devils are a bit stronger when the injury bug inevitably rears its head. Holtz will obviously have to prove he is prepared for such a role if he is thrust into top-six NHL duty, but with the trajectory of the Devils’ big three forwards, he will mainly have to show he can keep up, keep the puck moving, and find soft spots in defenses to be ready to rip shots when somebody feeds him (and perhaps also play quasi-competent defense),
Expectations for Holtz should obviously be tempered, as he will come in as still a rookie even if he does stick in New Jersey this time, but if he can muster 20ish goals and help make the power play serviceable, that could be a big win for the Devils in 2022-23. He had a nice little start for himself on Friday, scoring the game tying and winning goals in the first Prospect Challenge game in Buffalo. Now his next step will be to make an impact when the Devils start playing real NHL opponents in the preseason. If he can perform and ultimately make the club, he could be a solid boost to the Devils scoring consistency and their hopes of being competitive this season.