If you’ve been following OTF for a while now, you’ve seen Eric’s amazing prospect reports every year; he does a great job breaking down a prospect’s skills and where they should fall in the draft. What I want to do with this series is take a look at some of my favorite prospects from another angle: how would they fit into Nashville’s prospect pool? I’ll look at things like star probability, underlying numbers, and what I think of a player from the film I’ve watched to give you all the reasons why you, as a fan, should be hoping to hear their name on draft day.
For my sixth (and likely final) player in this series, I’ll be looking at Dawson Mercer, a 6’0”, 179 lb. right winger from the Chicoutimi Sagueneéns in the QMJHL. Mercer is an extremely intelligent and well-rounded player, boasting above average offensive skill across the board—most notably in his silky hands. However, the young winger has been tagged with a few question marks, chief among them his skating, that will likely make him available in the range of the 11th overall pick.
Our sister site All About The Jersey wrote a brief prospect profile on Mercer that you can read here, and Eric wrote about him briefly as a player who might be available when the Preds pick 11th.
Dawson Mercer, Right Wing, Chicoutimi Sagueneéns
Ranked 13th in Bob McKenzie’s final draft board (a ranking that closely reflects the pulse of scouts and GMs’ thoughts on prospects), Mercer will likely be an option at 11 for Nashville. While not a perfect prospect, I think Mercer would be an excellent fit, bringing a lot of unique qualities to a farm system attempting to restock on the fly.
What makes him good?
I probably saw Mercer the second or third most of any prospect in this draft, behind only Seth Jarvis (who was a joy to watch in the latter half of the year) and Jacob Perreault (I was quarantined for 14 days and had a blast going over his old games). There’s a lot to like about this guy, but as usual, I’ll narrow it down to the three big things I noticed.
1.) He’s the total offensive package
Mercer’s skating is a concern, but skating is one of the more fixable attributes when it comes to prospect development. What you’ll have more trouble coaching up is skill, and what you rarely can coach out of a player is instinct or hockey IQ. Mercer comes out of the draft with a solid grade or better in all of the offensive tools I look at with a prospect (hands, shot, vision, touch, positioning) and especially excels in the hands area, where I graded him to have top-5 talent. Usually, I have to preface these blurbs by saying “he’s not particularly flashy,” but in the case of Mercer that would be a lie.
He’s capable of stuff like that, but also is well versed in the more subtle, important art of using stickhandling for puck protection. I rarely saw Mercer get stripped while handling the puck in a one-on-one situation because he’s just so naturally good at reading the opposing player and using his bag of tricks to deceive and elude.
While Mercer has an accurate, above-average shot, his projection to be a goal scorer at the NHL level has just as much to do with his ability to read the defense. He’s constantly seeking out the slot, creating rebound attempts, and using good leverage to get second opportunities. It was rare that I saw a high danger chance where he wasn’t involved in some way.
He’s not perfect with his shot selection and likes to challenge goalies from any angle at any time, but he’s already a smart enough shooter when he gets in tight that I have no fears of him turning into another volume-shooting prospect (as nice as those are, they’re a bit easier to find). He has the tools to be a netfront terror in the NHL, be that as a guy who cuts in front or as the man who is always in the right spot to finish the rebound.
In those aforementioned categories of hands, shot, vision, touch, and positioning, I grade on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being “game changing” ability, 3 being “solid plus,” and so on. I gave Mercer a 4.5, 3.5, 3, 3, and 4 respectively. He grades out as one of the best offensive talents in the draft, with a projectable future as a solid top-six winger or better, and if he fixes his skating to average or better quality, he’ll be an even more dynamic scorer.
2.) He’s rarely in the wrong place
With a lot of the best offensive prospects in the draft that are available past the top five picks, you’re going to have caveats about their defensive game or effort in the defensive zone. Even in a draft like this one, where the top eight players are all rock solid, that seems to be the case. Mercer is one of the few truly standout offensive talents in the first round who doesn’t have those concerns. He’s not a guy who relied heavily on cheating to produce offense, and he almost never got burned in the sample I watched. He was always a factor in the defensive zone, and I really enjoyed watching him because of his lack of frustrating moments.
The main knock on Mercer, his skating, did pop up on occasion in transition, but in his own zone he was very effective at sealing his man into the boards, displaying a combo of an active stick and above-average defensive awareness. His responsibility was rewarded with time on the penalty kill, where he was quite effective in a similar role.
To simplify this trait to only the defensive zone is ignoring where his feel for the game is the most impressive, in my opinion: on offense, he is always, always in a position to either create a scoring chance, cover back in transition, or crash the slot to finish someone else’s opportunity. That’s not something you see in every goal scorer, but Mercer really impressed me with his willingness to be an impact player in all phases. Even when he would get a bit overmatched at times due to his mediocre maneuverability, I saw strong effort being made to hassle and hinder the puck mover in a legal manner. If Mercer’s skating improves, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him round out as one of the better defensive wingers in the league.
3.) He has a unique blend of playmaking, power moves, and brilliant dekes
Mercer’s biggest plus is his ability to score or facilitate scoring in any way you can think of. In the games I watched, he flashed brilliant vision, well above average touch, exceptional shooting accuracy, and a filthy combo of power and skill, all on separate occasions. In baseball, the term “five-tool player” is used to refer to a player who grades out as plus in the five categories of hit, field, arm, power, and speed. Usually, a superstar player is a five-tool player who excels in a category or two (power and hit, for example). In the case of Mercer, he’s what I’d call a five-tool forward—somebody who teams will never be able to fully shut down because he’s simply too versatile to be totally invisible.
Many of the prospects I’ve previously discussed do not currently fit that bill; often, they’re incredible at a few things with either average or below average ability in the rest of their game. Mercer is a guy who will likely be a top-six winger, but even if he never fully pans out, his game is so well-rounded that I could easily see him in a middle-six role or even a bottom-six role, playing the gritty penalty killer who drives the net or the guy on the third line who adds scoring punch and flair. This combination of a high floor and high upside is why I think he might be the best true fit for Nashville at the 11th pick.
Why is he a good fit in Nashville?
1.) He fits the ethos of prospect development the organization seems to adhere to
The Nashville Predators don’t have much of a history when it comes to taking risky, offensively-skilled players with high upside and low floors. They do have a background in loving well-rounded, skilled players with solid defensive instincts, and their approach to grooming prospects in Milwaukee seems largely focused on helping prospects acclimate to the pace and physicality of the pro game via improving their defense.
Mercer steps in as a guy with a high floor whose one flaw could be fixed if the Predators find the right skating coach to help him along, and I think a project that isn’t so intimidating might appeal to a GM that seems to be more interested in these types of players recently (less Austin Watson, more Egor Afanasyev). With a few other prospects whose skating is a knock on them already in the organization, I’d expect Poile to consider the risk low and the reward high. Taking that into consideration, I’d say that Mercer would be my most realistic option for Nashville to take at their current pick, barring the unprecedented fall of a top prospect (dear Lord, deliver us Marco Rossi).
Mercer would likely only need a season or so before making the jump to the pros, and if his skating takes the steps needed to improve, he likely wouldn’t remain in the AHL for very long. The Predators have to be thinking about pro readiness to an extent, and it isn’t totally unreasonable to think that Mercer could be challenging for the main roster as early as 2022, albeit in a limited stint or role.
With Mikael Granlund and Craig Smith’s looming UFA status and the uncertainty surrounding a relatively unheralded winger group of Viktor Arvidsson, Rocco Grimaldi, Rem Pitlick, Eeli Tolvanen, Calle Järnkrok, Austin Watson, Yakov Trenin and Colin Blackwell, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the team needs cheap impact wingers in the future. With Pitlick likely projecting as a third-line caliber forward, Tolvanen as a top-six guy, and Trenin on the fourth line in the rosiest of scenarios next year, the winger prospect cupboard is pretty barren aside from the aforementioned Russian stud in Afanasyev.
Poile likely looks at Mercer and sees a viable, soon-to-be-pro option who could develop into a true impact winger if handled correctly; I doubt he doesn't make that pick.
2.) He could end up being a top-five scorer from this draft class
If Mercer takes his skating from a weakness to above average, he’s a star. That’s the bottom line. He’s too talented of an offensive player not to be. The smooth hands, the complete game; throw in good edgework and an improved top gear, and you’ve got something unique. I’ll end this one here because there’s not much else to say.
3.) He fits as either a netfront presence or the guy who drives a line
Here’s where Mercer really clicks as a fit for Nashville, at least from my point of view. The Predators have been bombing shots away from the point for years, all to little avail since the departure of one man: Patric Hornqvist. Ever since trading away the little angry Swedish tank, David Poile has been searching for the next guy to take his place as the player who goes to the dirty areas and finishes the job with regularity.
Mercer doesn’t currently play that role, but if his skating never becomes all that great I could absolutely see him taking a spot as the guy who makes his money with his quick hands in close. He’s deceptive enough to finish, smart enough to consistently get open in the slot, and strong enough in his current frame to grow into a sturdy, annoying winger who can stand in front through all kinds of duress. While it might limit how his game can grow and flourish, it’s a reflection on his versatility and how he’ll be able to fit in any part of an NHL lineup.
On the other hand, he can also become the guy who drives a line with his puck protection skills, à la Kevin Hayes in these playoffs for the Flyers. He’s got the shot to be a threat from distance and the hands to make fools of players in the open ice, not just in front of the net. The Predators love a young, talented winger who is strong on the puck (Filip Forsberg), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they take a chance on one again.
Who does he compare to?
Mercer reminded me of a lot of players, but I had a few come to mind in particular.
Floor: Colin Wilson
If Mercer never solves his skating problems fully, he’ll still be able to be a solid bottom-six impact guy in his youth, similar to Wilson. He could even be capable of 40ish-point seasons at his floor with increased ice time, but would likely finish his career a disappointment given his draft pedigree. While Wilson was a better skater than Mercer by far, his offensive toolkit was pretty comparable, hence this connection.
Mid: Scott Hartnell
Scott Hartnell was never a very good skater. Scott Hartnell was also super fun to watch and very, very good at hockey. While Hartnell was never a great defensive player at the NHL level—often because of his lumbering, clumsy skating—he was an impact netfront presence and goal scorer for the Predators and Flyers most of his career. Hartnell had more power and less skill in his game than Mercer does, but I feel the two are quite similar in terms of projectable NHL impact.
Ceiling: Mark Stone Lite
Look, this is a lofty projection to throw out there, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a moment. If Mercer continues to polish the defensive part of his game and becomes a good skater, he’s fairly comparable to the analytical darling Golden Knights star. While Mercer’s defense will likely never match Stone’s, his offensive ability could be similar thanks to having a better set of hands, and his play in his own end would be good enough to be above league average.
If his skating is good, Mercer is probably a good transition player at the NHL level, and can likely drive a line with his entries, exits, and possession. Once you add all of that up, it no longer seems totally unrealistic. This would take a lot of progress on Mercer’s part to accomplish, but I see his ceiling as a plus defensive winger with amazing offensive impacts, and Mark Stone fits the bill.
What’s the final word?
Dawson Mercer is a very good hockey player. I would love to see him progress as a skater through the Predators’ system and give us a star winger to be excited about like Forsberg did his rookie season. I’d be more than happy with the team drafting him with their first pick, and you, the reader, hopefully would be as well.