Back on Valentine's Day, I took a closer look at New Jersey Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas. In splitting his game-by-game stats, it was pretty clear to me why he was demoted. Anytime a sheltered defenseman known for his offense sees a dip in production along with a massive drop in possession rate is a time to reconsider his current value to the team. After posting that, there was plenty of discussion both for or against the move. Looking back at it now, it's remarkable that one man's name did not come up almost at all: Jon Merrill.
Like Gelinas, Merrill is a rookie in the National Hockey League. Like Gelinas, he has played a significant amount of time with the Devils. Like Gelinas, he was a regular on the blueline for most of the last few months. Like Gelinas, Merrill is well under the age of 25; he is now 22. Like Gelinas, Merrill would not be subject to waivers if he were sent down to the AHL. However, unlike Gelinas, Merrill hasn't been nearly as productive on offense. Yet he remained in New Jersey until the Olympic break. He is back with them now, as Merill was a part of the team's practices during the games in Sochi. So what gives? Why did Merrill stay while Gelinas go? Let's try to figure it out.
Based on his game-by-game stats at Extra Skater, I split his 32 games in half to show what's been going on.
At first glance, this isn't all that good. Merrill hasn't put up a lot of points, his already low shooting rate got worse, and his on-ice Corsi percentage dropped from a very good 57.6% to 52%.
However, there's larger context that makes this look better for the rookie defenseman. First, Merrill being at 52% over the last 16 games is still good. It's still positive, unlike the last 16 games from Gelinas where the by-product of the play on the ice put him at 48.3%. Merrill's drop in possession has not been as significant as Gelinas' drop in possession. Second, Merrill has not been protected like Gelinas. Sure, Merrill has been given more offensive than defensive starts. But DeBoer has been giving him more of the latter. His average offensive/defensive zone start percentage over the last 16 games is 50.69%. In the first 16 games, it was 56.61%. Over the whole season, Merrill has a favorable zone start percentage of 54% but it's not nearly as generous as Gelinas' 62.9%. Not only does Peter DeBoer trust Merrill more by way of starting more shifts in his own end, the fact that Merrill still comes out positive in possession over each split means he's more than holding his own. Much unlike Gelinas.
On top of this, consider the passes that Ryan has been tracking all season. It's a way to determine who's really distributing the puck. Given his strong shot, Gelinas hasn't been active as a passer. Merrill is the opposite. He hasn't been shooting the puck a lot, but he's been moving it effectively. He's been so good at it that Ryan rated him nearly as good as the team's top defensemen, Andy Greene and Mark Fayne. The Devils may or may not be tracking passes like he is, but it's something noticeable overtime. What Ryan has found, among many other facts, is further evidence of good play Merrill Those plays don't happen without good play in the back end, either.
All together, Merrill hasn't been nearly as problematic as Gelinas has been on defense. His issue has been on offense, where Merrill simply hasn't contributed all that much. Even Peter Harrold has shot the puck more often than Merrill; and Merrill's current rates aren't too dissimilar to Anton Volchenkov. But I think that can be worked on. Moreover, it's a preferable issue than a defenseman who struggles on defense. Merrill's last 16 games haven't been as strong on possession, but that he's still positive and quite a bit above 50% means he's handling the increase in responsibilities at evens. If he makes mistakes - and he surely has, everyone does - then they haven't been costly nor have they resulted in getting severely out-attempted like the other rookie defenseman over the past month or so. If Merrill can provide more on offense, then it appears the Devils will have a very fine defender on hand. But right now, he's handled himself way more often than not in his first 31 full games (this first appearance was shortened by injury). That's why he remained in the NHL, particularly over Gelinas, who was suffering for the better part of his last sixteen games. He'll still remain there provided there's a spot for him and/or he doesn't slip any further.