A number of first round-caliber prospects fell into the second round, and at the 38th overall pick, the New Jersey Devils take one of the top defensemen available. The Devils selected United States National Team Developmental Program defenseman and Michigan commit Jonathan Merrill.
Jonathon Merrill - D - 6'3", 198 lbs. - CSS Rank: 21 - Hometown: Grand Blanc, MI (Source: NHL.com)
2009-10 Team: USNDTP U-18 - 22 GP - 1 G - 8 A - 9 Pts. - 12 PIM
Merrill had a very successful year with the USNDTP, as the United States U-18 teams won the 2009 Four Nations, came in second in the 2010 Six Nations, and won the 2010 World U-18 Championships for the second straight year. His numbers may not be eye-popping; but there's plenty to like. Here's a quote from Central Scouting's Jeff Barzee:
"He plays the game a lot like Jordan Leopold. He plays weaving and diving, sneaking and thinking, gaining the zone and moving the puck ahead right on the tape to a guy. He's skilled and he's really come a long way in his development."
Forget the stats, Merrill's puck movement was certainly a focus of praise if this is the short quote the NHL ran with in Merrill's profile. There are four profiles done among SBN Hockey blogs on Merrill. Western College Hockey Blog checked out how Merrill played, here is a teasing quote from that profile:
There's a very interesting comparison and debate developing between him and NTDP teammate Derek Forbort. Some thought Merrill outperformed Forbort at the U18s, and the two seem to be neck-and-neck heading into the draft. Forbort is all natural physical ability, but perhaps not as polished, while Merrill doesn't have the physical abilities of Forbort, but is a much smarter player. Forbort probably has the higher ceiling, but Merrill is likely the safer bet. It would be a tough choice between the two, and likely comes down to personal team drafting philosophy. Merrill is definitely worthy of a first round pick, and will likely go in the 15-25 range.
Please continue after the jump for more information. Please discuss how you feel about this pick in the comments.
I'm sure a lot of sites will regard Merrill as someone who fell out of the first round and could be a "steal." The Scouting Report ranked him 17th on their list of prospects and put together a detailed profile on the defender. Merrill got a lot attention for giving a verbal commitment to Michigan at the age of 14. Since then, he's come up through the USNTDP; but the big question - perhaps enough to have him fall out of the first round? - is whether he can meet the hype. This is the main red flag I saw in the Scouting Report's profile:
However, Merrill’s best attribute has to be his hockey smarts and ability to seemingly always be in the right spot. He reads the attack and is able to anticipate passes and loose pucks.
Add it all up, and you have a good defenseman who looks to have the ability to improve. How much he can improve will determine whether or not Merrill will live up to the hype that has followed him through his career thus far.
Pros: Hockey IQ, defensive techniques, size and strength
Cons: May have already reached his potential
Skillset comparison: Marc Staal
So the big question is upside. At least according to the Scouting Report. Hockey's Future has a short profile on Merrill and they don't agree. If anything, HF feels he just needs to get stronger:
Merrill is a two-way defender with good upside. Has the size to clear the crease, but may have to work on his overall strength to excel at the pro level.
Likewise, the profile put together by Mark Stepneski at Andrew's Stars Page includes quotes from multiple sources and the only common criticism appears to be intensity. The quote from McKeen's in the profile spells it out the best.
The knock on Merrill is his consistency and the manner in which he processes the game. Merrill tends to over think in situations rather than making the simple play, he gets overwhelmed with variety of options. He routinely makes mistakes, and it is not uncommon for him to surrender the puck up the middle or lose his man down low. His lack of intensity is also a concern and he appears content to be ordinary and not elevate his game when he needs to.
That said, all of the rankings except for the Hockey News put Merrill in the first round. And the Hockey News had him at 31st. Speaking of the Hockey News, Ross McLean had a very positive assessment of his World U-18 performance:
The most impressive player, in my opinion, just happens to be one of those incredibly impressive people as well. Jon Merrill was Mr. Everything for the US.
A dynamic two-way defender, few players can run a power play as well as Merrill. His ability to use active deception and creates lanes – coupled with his vision and reactions with the puck – make him dangerous in the offensive zone.
He can still improve his skating stride and overall technical package. Merrill is a first round talent that will likely be a steal no matter what selection he is taken at.
Of course, another assessment with a different criticism of the player. Between the sites I've looked at so far, I have upside, intensity/consistency, strength, and skating as different areas of criticism. I can't imagine that his flaws were so severe or striking that he'd go all the way down to 38th overall. Even the "low" ranking of the Hockey News was only 31st per the profile at Andrew's Stars Page. Therefore, one can't help but feel positive about the selection.
There is one other issue surrounding Merrill that does give me some pause. Merrill was suspended from the USNTDP for 2 weeks (8 games) last season for "off-ice incidents." According to this Dan Feldman article at MLive, Merrill was involved in some kind of harrassment/hazing incident. Such behavior is unacceptable and hopefully Merrill is wise enough to steer clear of that in the future. It appears that he has, given his comments. From the article, I got a sense that maturity definitely was another issue that some teams may have had a problem with.
Speaking of interviews, Merrill had this extensive one with Kevin Wey of McKeen's back in April It's a long read, but here's the last bit where he declares that his inspiration of Detroit legend Nicklas Lidstrom:
McKeen's: I suppose that would be a little different, kind of like being a lab rat. For the last question, to round things out, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why - I think I know one of these - and some players today who you feel you're similar to or would like to equate to?
Merrill: My favorite player my whole life has been Nick Lidstrom. Growing up watching the Wings play and the way he plays, he inspires me to play the way that I play. Pretty much him and any other defenseman that plays a similar role - maybe a Tomas Kaberle - anyone that logs a lot of minutes like that. I just love watching defensemen that keep it simple and log the big minutes.
For a more up to date quote, Rich Chere has this reaction from Merrill after being picked by New Jersey:
"I couldn't have thought of a better franchise to be drafted by," Merrill said. "They've won three Stanley Cups. They alway build their teams from the crease out and they're always known as one of the best defensive teams in the league. I think that's perfect for my style of game. I like to play from my own end out."
He knows he fits the description of the ideal Devils defenseman.
"I think I'm a pretty consistent, reliable defenseman who keeps it simple. But, at the same time, I chip in offensively and I run the power play," Merrill said. "I have a lot of offensive skill but I'm responsible defensively."
So what do you think? Admittedly, I'm not quite sure what to expect going forward other than continued improvement. He'll be going to a big hockey program at Michigan and he'll have all of the opportunities to do that there as well as at with any USA Hockey U-20 tournaments. The Devils are very patient with college prospects, so I wouldn't be concerned over whether New Jersey will rush him. Moreover, they are very supportive of the college system; so Michigan fans shouldn't be concerned over whether they'll convince Merrill to go to Canadian Major Juniors or elsewhere.
Most of the criticisms raised about Merrill appear to be fixable except for his upside. Among them all, I really hope his character improves - the Devils value personality highly, but more so as a person. But we have no control over that, only Jonathon Merrill does.
That all said, I think this was a fantastic pick for the Devils if only because he was projected to be a first round draft pick as one of the better defensemen in the draft. He's not small, he doesn't appear to be a one-way defenseman, and many outside observers think highly of what he could bring to the table, even if it differs a little.
Welcome to the New Jersey Devils organization, Jonathon Merrill, I wish you the very best of luck. Keep developing and working hard and we may see you in New Jersey in a few years.
Please let me know what you think about the pick in the comments.