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Big Shot Holtz Still Needs To Round His Game To Earn Place With Devils
Head Coach Lindy Ruff took in the Devils’ preseason opener against Philadelphia on Monday night from the Prudential Center press box to get a different view of some of his players who are pressing for precious few spots on the 23-man roster on a team with the highest of aspirations.
As the Devils, who split their squad so the other half could travel to Montreal, where a Jack Hughes-led group defeated the Canadiens, 4-2, were pounding the overmatched Flyers, 6-0, Ruff had the opportunity to get a really good look at polarizing wing Alexander Holtz. New Jersey’s No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft received nearly 20 minutes of ice time, the most among Devils’ forwards. He started on the top line with captain Nico Hischier and Timo Meier and then double-shifted some to take the place of Brian Halonen, who was injured in a first period fight.
The stat line showed that Holtz netted a goal off a slick play from Meier on three shots and was plus-2. Not a bad night for the 21-year old who has to date considerably underachieved at the NHL level in some fans’ eyes, right? Well, besides the fact that preseason results always come with a disclaimer in the boldest of fonts, especially when the talent level of opponents varies widely, that’s not all that Ruff was evaluating.
Not that Ruff wasn’t already well aware of Holtz’s plus shot that had Devils scouts salivating. Thanks to some shoddy Flyers play in their own end, Ruff got a first-hand display when Holtz was able to slip free into the slot to take Meier’s feed and then beat beleaguered goalie Cal Peterson to put New Jersey up. 4-0, just 5:50 into the contest. Even if he has struggled to produce in his limited NHL regular season tilts (3 goals and 3 assists in 28 games), no one is questioning his ability to put pucks in the net., Holtz has already tallied 33 goals in 76 AHL contests over the last three seasons. It’s just that Holtz’s stumbling block has always been: How does he help the team when he isn’t scoring?
For Holtz isn’t likely to see major minutes on a top line or a power play on a team that boasts the likes of Hughes, Hischier, Meier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, and Tyler Toffoli up front. In a bottom-six role, the club requires someone who will commit to playing more responsibly.
And that still doesn’t appear to be Holtz’s forte. I understand this was just one game—a preseason one where not everyone goes all out for that matter—but the telltale signs of soft play remain apparent, He may have slightly improved his skating and he was more willing to carry pucks than in the past, but he still engages in battles at an inconsistent rate, often skating by them with maybe a weak swipe. I didn’t notice any instances where he didn’t hustle defensively—Ruff went out of his way in his postgame press conference to commend him for one instance where he tracked back to help out on a Philly rush--but NaturalStatTrick.com did have Holtz as one of three Devils forwards who were outchanced when on the ice on Monday night—in a game where the Flyers were outshot, 34-21.
Contrast that with Tyce Thompson, a less heralded (fourth round, 2019) wing who is in direct competition with Holtz. Thompson also scored, burying a rebound from around the blue paint, but the glaring difference was that he also played with a little edge, leading the team with five hits. One of them in the Devils’ zone turned the puck over and led to Michael McLeod’s slick breakaway goal to cap the scoring in the third period, though Thompson wasn’t credited with an assist.
Obviously, no decisions need to be made with five preseason games to go over the next 10 days, with a road game against the Rangers on Thursday up next. It seems that the Devils organization is going to give Holtz every opportunity to make the club, possibly because of his draft status.
However, as opposed to last season, I don’t believe we’ll see Holtz hang around New Jersey for lengthy stretches as an extra forward, even if the team views he has already successfully completed his minor league apprenticeship. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has second-guessed how he handled Holtz in that regard last season. Maybe Holtz’s waiver exempt status, as opposed to guys like Thompson or Nolan Foote who could be claimed by another NHL club before they could be sent down to Utica, will play a factor at the start of the 2023-24 campaign.
I’m not suggesting at all that it’s time to give up on a talented player this young. However, from my perspective, until I see Holtz consistently play a more rounded game, he doesn’t look like a New Jersey Devil.