Jon Merrill was called up from Albany nearly two years ago and has stuck with the Devils ever since. He had a great rookie season but after that it’s kind of fallen off. He had to deal with various injuries last season and he didn’t really improve. He’s been the worst defenseman for the Devils this year and without the likes of Salvador, Zidlicky, Fraser and Harrold to draw the ire of the fanbase, he’s become the fanbase’s whipping boy. The good news is that he’s still relatively young, he turns 24 in February. The bad news is that he really hasn’t shown any improvement over the past few seasons. So what happens now?
Here’s a look at Merrill’s statistics over his career
Merrill’s rookie season was his best season by far and he really hasn’t been all that great ever since. What we can see is a bit of a trend- his ability to prevent shots isn’t the issue here- it’s fine. What is dragging down his possession numbers is how the team can’t generate shots with Merrill on the ice. He wasn’t terrible in his rookie season (4th out of 8 Devils Defensemen in CF/60 w/ >500 mins of TOI) but last season he finished 6th out of 7th (same TOI parameters) in CF/60 and is currently dead last in CF/60 among Devils defensemen and is dead last among Devils defensemen in CF/60 despite having easier zone starts. For comparison sake, Larsson and Greene have done better at generating shots despite being buried in the defensive zone. Some of it can be system related and the low quality of players the Devils have had over the past few seasons, but regardless, this is a very bad development.
In terms of what he’s doing wrong, it’s hard to say. Fundamentally, he isn’t really doing much wrong other than that he gets beaten badly. He gets caught in bad spots. He doesn’t really play the puck much either, so his only value should be his defense. But seeing as he gets beaten routinely with the fewer amounts of attempts that he allows, it’s understandable why he gets the kind of flak he’s receiving. It seems similar to problems Mark Fayne had in his career- he did a good job defensively but when he gets beaten it usually looked really bad. While he doesn’t rely on his puck skills, he’s still a decent skater, which helps in that he won’t get killed by the increasing pace of the game. He might not be great, but if there’s one positive with Merrill it’s that he hasn’t become a massive liability like Dan Girardi (yet).
The issue here is that Merrill is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Devils are a low event team as of now and they probably will continue to be one for the forseeable future. They’ll likely improve as they add more shot generating forwards but they’re probably not going to be the L.A. Kings 2.0 any time soon. Could he be useful on another team? Yes. Merrill could very well be an excellent fit on a high event team with defensive issues such as Calgary. On the Devils, all he does is exacerbate their weaknesses. With Greene and Larsson eating defensive zone starts, the Devils need defensemen who can provide some offense with their optimized starts and Merrill clearly isn’t that guy. I’m doubtful that he’s going to be a good player (as in a top 4 caliber defenseman), but with the way his play has trended he’s starting to look less like a regular NHLer and more like a 7th defenseman/fringe NHLer. Considering the issues the Devils have faced over the past few seasons, he could most definitely benefit from a change of scenery to a team that gets pucks on net more frequently. And at this point the Devils should seriously consider moving on from Merrill because he probably won’t provide much value to them in the long run.
All data via War-on-ice.com