Dawson Mercer is excited.
To be fair, the 19-year-old Newfoundlander always sounds excited. The Devils' first-round (18th overall) selection in the 2020 NHL Draft has an easy air about him, apparent even before he's played a game for the organization.
But right now, Mercer is especially bright-eyed. He and the Chicoutimi Sagueneens are about to begin a playoff series against the Val-D'or Foreurs, for the right to play in the QMJHL's President Cup championship series.
Does it feel surreal to have his junior career wrap up going for a league title in a bubble in neutral Quebec City, not long after participating in one in Edmonton for the World Junior?
"Honestly, it feels normal, I know there are no fans and we are in a bubble, but you don't notice the difference once the play starts," Mercer said. "It has been intense, playoff hockey.
"And it's just good to be able to have a chance to play for the President Cup when (WHL and OHL playoffs) are shut down."
Whatever the next month brings, Mercer is also itching to get to New Jersey for the first time and show what he can do, be it at a prospects/development camp, or the main training camp.
"I haven't yet heard anything," he said about the potential for a traditional summer prospects/development camp. "Whenever it is (a prospects camp) or training camp, I'm just looking forward to the opportunity after the Devils drafted me."
Mercer is referring to the odd feeling of not yet having been to Newark. Instead, Mercer had a stop-and-start beginning to the regular season and at the World Junior, where he came home disappointed with a silver medal. That capped a six-month span rife with quarantine absences and restrictions. He's served six quarantines and 12 weeks total in isolation. Another one looms when he returns to Newfoundland from Quebec, per Atlantic Canada health regulations.
Whatever the obstacles to get here, Mercer and his team have been on a roll since Valentine's Day. Playing on a line with fellow 2020 first-rounder Hendrix Lapierre (22nd overall, Washington), they've lit it up offensively. He's got 13 points (6G-7A) in just six postseason games, as the Sags have blitzed both their opponents in three-game sweeps. That followed 36 points (19 G-17A) in just 23 regular-season games, and six points (2G-4A) in seven World Junior contests with Canada.
It is Mercer's final season of junior hockey and like all elite performers are expected to do, he's upped his production as he's went along.
Mercer's late-2001 birthday pushed him into the 2020 Draft. By then he had completed three QMJHL seasons, two and half with the Drummondville Voltigeurs before a trade to Chicoutimi shortly after returning from the 2020 World Junior. Mercer helped Canada win gold, along with current Devils Kevin Bahl, Nolan Foote and Ty Smith, and the recently signed Nico Daws.
Mercer was not expected to make that team, or even be invited to the final selection camp, but his dogged play in the fall of 2019 for Drummondville turned heads of both NHL scouts and Team Canada brass.
Mercer's strength is his combination of skill and tenacity. He has an especially keen sense for the puck when it's on opponents' sticks. He gets there quickly and often generates chances of turnovers. He also has stand-alone skill to create offense on his own.
Both qualities translate to pro hockey.
"There's some skill there," said Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald after taking Mercer, when asked where he could project someday in the big club's lineup. Mercer's increased offensive output this season is a nod to Fitzgerald's brief draft night comment.
Interestingly, Mercer's original junior coach in Drummondville was Dominic Ducharme, who is now head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. Ducharme was asked about Mercer in the lead-up to the 2020 Draft, while he was still an assistant with the Habs.
"Not surprised," was Ducharme's response at a pre-draft media session 16 months ago when Mercer was rising up the draft charts but still had a certain mystery about him.
That draft, of course, was delayed due to the pandemic but by the time it did arrive Mercer had little mystery surrounding him. With fellow forward Alexander Holtz going first to the Devils at No. 7, and Russian defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin two picks after Mercer, it doesn't require MENSA-level analyzation to assume that trio is a big part of the big club's rebuild.
The youthful texture of the Devils and the organization's AHL roster has Mercer, well, excited.
"You'd always be excited to get picked by any NHL team," he says, "but going to Devils (as and when) I did, is especially exciting because it is such a great organization with so many young guys."
And speaking of youngsters, his final junior campaign brought with it a brief, but unique opportunity for Mercer to face his younger brother, Riley, a goaltender in his rookie season with Drummondville.
Mercer had a hat trick but there was a catch.
"It was against their other goalie," Dawson explained. "(Riley) stopped me on the one shot I had on him."