Alexander Holtz came into training camp more prepared than ever. He wasn’t in bad shape before, however, this year he arrived trimmer, yet stronger in both his body and mind. It was evident in his skating and decision-making that Holtz was much improved from the previous fall. Yet, Head Coach Lindy Ruff demoted him from Nico Hischier’s line to the third line. So what went behind Holtz’s third-line demotion?
Holtz finished the preseason with two goals and an assist in four exhibition games. In three out of four contests, Ruff stapled Holtz on Hischier’s line with Timo Meier flanking them on the left side. Holtz appeared to be building some chemistry with the Swiss forwards, connecting specifically with Meier on his pair of goals.
“I think (Holtz) had a good camp,” Ruff explained on Thursday morning. “He just has to build off of that. There’s a lot of work to be done with any young guy.”
There’s not much question left in Holtz’s game when it comes to playing in the offensive zone. In the other two zones, however, you could see where Ruff is coming from.
It’s true that playing with a Selke-calibre center in Hischier and a responsible forward in Meier, any deficit of Holtz’s may not be as apparent. However, Ruff explained that he went back to the well he trusts with Dawson Mercer skating on the second line.
“I think that when we looked at our lineup and what really worked well for us last year, Nico and Mercer played a lot together,” said Ruff. “They were the guys who played against top lines. They’re comfortable reading off each other in a lot of situations.”
Part of the decision was a matter of comfortability. Ruff is comfortable deploying Mercer with Hischier and Meier as a guy who has already played in the Devils’ top six and found success. Additionally, their deployment against the opposition’s top line is a tall order for the 21-year-old Holtz who still has some details to work on.
Despite his increased strength and agility, Holtz lost some puck battles and made some errant passes in the neutral and defensive zone in preseason. According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio of Holtz, Meier, and Hischier accrued 46.0 CF% and 58.88 xGF%. However, with Holtz not on the ice, Hischier and Meier accrued a 66.67 CF% and 67.42 xGF%. Evidently, Holtz was holding the duo of Meier and Hischier back slightly.
With Erik Haula looking good to go, Holtz will start opening night on his right. Rounding out the third line is Ondrej Palat, giving Holtz two responsible veterans to play with in all three zones.
The good news is Holtz played well enough to be in the opening night lineup. He started there last season and there’s reason to believe he’ll last longer this season. Ruff even offered up the idea that Holtz will have an opportunity to work his way back into the top six at some point.
“We played him (with Hischier and Meier) most of the way through camp,” Ruff said. “Maybe we thought Haula wouldn’t be ready for tonight so we looked at something else. I think there’s an opportunity where in the game, guys will be in different spots (of the lineup).”