When it comes to the NHL, some players have an uncanny ability to show a glimpse of potential between vast spans of nothingness. In New Jersey, home of the league’s worst offense in 2015-16, many players put on disappearing acts for the ages.
If fans and analysts alike are to start considering New Jersey a playoff team, many players will need to find more success in 2016-17. If not, they better be ready to walk the plank.
One of those players, defender Jon Merrill, followed up an impressive 20 game start to his career with 145 poor ones.
Current Role and Potential
Fans had sky-high hopes for Jon Merrill. Perhaps it was because he was the Devils’ first draft pick in 2010 – even if he was actually taken in the second round. Maybe it’s because he had a good premiere season under Pete DeBoer in 2013-14.
Or could it be that he is just 24 and has shown growth since the suspension that he faced as an 18-year-old at the University of Michigan?
Whatever the reason, it’s time to temper their expectations: Merrill is neither steady enough on defense to replace Andy Greene nor flashy enough to be a reliable puck-mover, and his play shows it. Moreover, his current trajectory makes it look like the Devils have already seen him at his best.
Jersey’s team is borderline desperate for a top-four left-handed defenseman and Merrill is likely to take on that role. But does that have to do with his skill? Or rather is it the default of a management team without alternatives?
Once upon a time, Merrill had a good rookie season in New Jersey, but he has shown little in the interim to warrant more consideration as a future staple.
To be a top-four defenseman, Merrill will need to start being successful without being sheltered. That’s a lot to ask of someone who has been thrown into the deep end several times and hasn’t yet been able to tread water.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Merrill’s play mostly sticks out in two ways: first, for his underappreciated passing skills, and second, for his inability to drive play.
Merrill’s passing and vision are impressive. Ryan Stimson’s passing data shows a player who is comfortable with the puck on his stick. One of Merrill’s strengths on his HERO chart is his playmaking ability, with 0.2074 first Assists per 60 minutes.
That weighted average puts him in third among Devils’ defensemen in the past three years, behind only Adam Larsson and Damon Severson.
In terms of defensemen, however, no trait is more important than the ability to drive play. Unfortunately for Merrill, that is something he lacks. In looking at Corsi For percentage, it is abundantly clear that the former Michigan Wolverine is unable to set plays in motion.
Of the team’s more sheltered defensemen, only Seth Helgeson struggled more than Merrill in driving play. Blueliners who surpassed him include David Warsofsky, David Schlemko, and Vojtech Mozik.
The Andy Greene effect
It’s common for teams to try and split up their talent on offense and defense. The reasoning behind such a move is to spread the wealth and hope that a lone individual can bring about success by boosting the play of his teammates. Andy Greene is the master of this practice and earned a major pay-raise last year as a result.
Players like Greene and Adam Larsson have been able to buoy the play of others, and we can see their effect on Merrill firsthand thanks to Super WOWY (with or without you) outputs from Puckalytics.
Greene played significantly worse when paired with Merrill and that was with more favorable zone starts. Larsson and Merrill had a similar relationship, with both players faring worse when together.
In one instance, Merrill was able to boost the play of his pairing. When he lined up with Damon Severson, Merrill performed better than normal and so did his partner.
To an extent, Merrill is along for the ride. Statistics show that he struggles when separated from top talent and actually makes those around him worse in the process.
That type of performance would likely be able to slip through the cracks if Andy Greene and Adam Larsson were each anchoring their own pairings. However, Larsson was traded last month, so the defense (Greene notwithstanding) is likewise going to be under constant examination.
Adding even more fuel to that fire is the fact that management is likely only to protect three defensemen in next summer’s Expansion Draft. As they look to simplify the decision, the front office will be extra watchful, scrutinizing each individual on the roster with a fine-toothed comb.
Playing for another contract
When you’re a high draft pick and still have productive years in front of you, you can oftentimes bank on your credentials to get a new contract. Teams have fallen for these types of players countless times. They invest in former high draft picks with bad NHL track records in hopes of unearthing a diamond in the rough. It usually fails, but that hasn’t taught teams enough to exhibit more control.
That trend leaves major job security for Merrill, who struggled through his first contract year in 2016 and still found himself with a renewed contract. As a former top-40 pick with a resume featuring some quality play, Merrill could earn his next contract mostly by way of his draft status and a few faint glimmers of hope that he could someday be the real deal.
Merrill could also do just poorly enough that the Devils refuse to tender him, but not so poorly that other teams back off. We saw a case like this last summer when the Devils picked up John Moore after Arizona was so unimpressed with his play that they let him walk.
Merrill could easily turn it around next year. It would save the Devils having to scour through the bargain bin again, and it would expedite this defensive rebuild that is still a major work in progress.
That said, putting a small bandage over a gaping wound is not good asset management. On that point, Merrill is unfortunately being pigeonholed into a top-four spot in which he hasn’t yet found success.
However, if he can continue to develop and revert back to his 2013-14 campaign, Merrill may be able to prove doubters wrong..