Jon Merrill making a play in front of Wild forward Justin Fontaine; the two played against each other at Xcel Energy Center for the 2011 NCAA National Championship
While the country was busy watching the Ducks-Red Wings game in Anaheim while NBC experienced technical difficulties during their Devils-Wild broadcast, Jon Merrill scored in the third period to give the Devils a 2-1 lead against Minnesota, one they would hold onto to snap their three-game losing streak. The two points New Jersey earned in a must-win game in Minnesota helped them jump Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and Tampa Bay and climb back into a playoff spot after falling outside of the Eastern Conference’s top eight. Although every team directly below the Devils have at least one game in hand on New Jersey, the Devils and their fans find themselves in a situation most thought was impossible coming into this season: holding a playoff position in the middle of January. For Merrill, it wasn’t only his first goal in 82 games, it was a positive memory in the building his NHL debut came to a swift and unfortunate end more than two years ago.
After a rocky amateur career during which at the University of Michigan Merrill was suspended for the first 22 games of the Wolverines’ 2011-12 season, his stock fell in the 2010 draft, eventually landing with the Devils in the second round. Merrill made his professional debut in the spring of 2013 with Albany, and his NHL debut came with the Devils later that year in November against Minnesota. Less than five minutes into the first period of that game at Xcel Energy Center, Merrill was tripped during his third shift by Wild forward Torrey Mitchell and slid into the boards. He left a pool of blood behind him on the ice, and a dazed Merrill was helped to the bench by the Devils trainer and a few teammates, with a Gatorade towel pressed up against the gash above his left eye under his protective visor. Despite the gruesome scene and subsequent concussion diagnosis, Merrill only missed eight games, and rejoined the Devils to get his NHL career into full swing later that November.
Somehow, the abrupt and likely painful end to Merrill’s NHL debut was not the first and perhaps not the most severe heartbreak he experienced at Xcel Energy Center. In 2011, Merrill and the University of Michigan played the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA national championship game there in St. Paul, which went to overtime. Senior Kyle Schmidt won the game for Minnesota-Duluth at 3:21 of the first OT, with a freshman Merrill on the ice for Michigan. The Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth, a team that included Justin Faulk, had won their first national title in school history. Justin Fontaine, who skated for the Wild last night, was also with UMD that year. Merrill was named to the all-tournament team, but it was for him likely a minor consolation. The University of Michigan would have one more tournament appearance during his time at the school, coming the following season. Although they were a favorite going into the 2012 tournament, Michigan would lose in the first round to Cornell, again in overtime.
Merrill has had an up-and-down NHL career to this point. When he first returned from his injury sustained in Minnesota in 2013, he spent a good chunk of time as a useless, cone of a defenseman. His positioning was awful, he was easily out-muscled and pushed off the play, and when he had possession of the puck, he looked like a deer in headlights. As someone who wasn’t very good at hockey when I played, I can easily identify the signs of a clueless defenseman. I remember thinking when he would nervously sweep the puck up the ice without picking his head up or miss his passes by 5 or 6 feet, that those were the same plays I used to make, and how could someone who earned an NHL appearance be that bad. Despite Peter DeBoer’s pattern of benching and neglecting rookies who made even the slightest of mistakes, he allowed Merrill to remain in the lineup, earning playing time over Adam Larsson who spent much of that season with Albany. Jon eventually worked out what probably amounted to issues of nerves and lack of confidence, and emerged in his rookie year as a strong and serviceable NHL defenseman that many said (both fans and media) had the making of a potential future superstar.
Last year, Merrill had a largely forgettable season, and until the last few weeks, it seemed he had yet to shake off the effects of his clichéd sophomore slump. Until last night, he had not scored since December of 2014, and while his defensive game has not been as ineffective as his play in the offensive zone, he has experienced a definite slump since his outstanding rookie campaign. His 2014-15 year was buried under the other blue-line headlines of Damon Severson’s outstanding rookie campaign, Adam Larsson’s emergence as a top pairing defenseman, and what was probably eventual captain Andy Greene’s best career season. It seems that Merrill has earned a consistent spot in the Devils lineup, no longer juggling press box appearances with Eric Gelinas, who, after coming into the league in 2013-14 along with Merrill, has been a major disappointment. While Merrill has yet to cement his place as a regular NHL defenseman, and he will have to put up some sustained impressive performance before he again is called a potential superstar at the NHL level, these peaks and valleys that have accompanied Merrill during his development are normal for defenseman. As Adam Larsson has emerged from a similar pattern of inconsistency during the dawn of his career to become a highly effective top pairing defenseman and one of the Devils most valuable assets, so still might Jon Merrill.
Saying that this goal has helped Jon Merrill erase the awful memories he has at Xcel Energy Center could be a bit of an overstatement. He will likely have to have a few more very positive experiences there before going to St. Paul without seeing the bleach-blonde headed group of UMD Bulldogs celebrating their national championship through a bloody visor. One goal in the middle of January will not help him forget the heartbreak he experienced after coming so close to something he probably knew he had one opportunity to achieve, nor will it help him forget the stitches Devils trainers were sewing into his face after he was so quickly sent to the locker room after realizing his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. I am sure it is even a little bit disappointing for Jon that after a somewhat difficult year and a half, his goal was not broadcasted live for Devils fans, who have not been easy on him during his development period, to celebrate with him and his teammates when he broke the tie. It is, however, a very positive moment for a young defenseman still trying to fulfill his potential and find his way as a regular NHLer. Hopefully Merrill builds on this goal and his improved play in recent weeks to turn the page, and find the long-term consistency his young career has so far lacked.