The New Jersey Devils eventually will need to decide which of their prospects they should keep and which ones they should part ways with. Defenseman Jon Merrill definitely falls under the category of keep.
With a large group of defensive prospects, some will need to go, but it is essential that Merrill remains a Devil.
Merrill was drafted 38th overall by the Devils in the second round of the 2010 NHL entry draft. The Devils did not have a first-round pick that year—it was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in the Ilya Kovalchuk deal.
Despite not being a first-round pick, Merrill was a steal for the Devils. The 6’4" defenseman still hasn’t made the jump to professional hockey yet, but he is playing NCAA hockey for the Michigan Wolverines, where he continues to develop his skills.
Merrill is an excellent puck-moving defenseman, which means he could be a valuable asset for the Devils in the future. The Devils haven’t had a combination of two exceptional, point-scoring defensemen since the days of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. But once Merrill reaches the NHL, he and Adam Larsson could rack up some points.
Obviously, it’s far-fetched to compare any defensive combination to Niedermayer and Stevens, but Merrill’s stats at Michigan are convincing enough to prove that he has a future with the Devils.
During his freshman year, Merrill led all Michigan defensemen with 25 points while eating up some major minutes. He was named to the All-CCHA second team and also to the CCHA All-Rookie team. Merrill also had two points in four games in the 2011 Frozen Four in which the Wolverines lost 3-2 in overtime to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
His outstanding play was hindered his sophomore year, though, when he was suspended 12 games for violating a team policy. Michigan head coach Red Berenson would eventually extend the suspension to 22 games.
But when he returned, Merrill proved how valuable he was to his team. The Wolverines struggled to keep a .500 record while Merrill served his suspension, then the team finished the season 13-4-2 with Merrill in the lineup.
In his 19 games during his sophomore campaign, Merrill once again played top-two minutes and scored 11 points.
At the conclusion of his sophomore year, Merrill decided to remain at the University of Michigan for at least one more season before making the jump to the NHL.
Another year at Michigan was the right decision for Merrill since the Devils don’t have room for another defenseman just yet. When and if the lockout ends, the Devils will have eight defensemen that are NHL capable: Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne, Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, Adam Larsson and Anton Volchenkov. Not to mention a that few Albany Devils defensemen—Alex Urbom, Matt Corrente and Jay Leach—have all played in the NHL before and may be ahead of Merrill on the Devils’ depth chart.
The extra year or two that Merrill spends in the NCAA will give the Devils some time to weed out a few defensemen in order to make room for him.
However, Merrill suffered another setback recently when he was injured in an exhibition game. He is expected to miss about the first six weeks of the season.
That was about five weeks ago though, so Merrill should return to action soon.
The Wolverines currently have a record of 4-6-1. If their record improves after Merrill's return, it will be a good indicator of what his presence means to a hockey team.