In some of the prior entries of our Top 25 Devils Under 25 List, part of the reason some players were ranked higher than others was due to the benefit of experience. Whether they succeeded or not at the NHL level, the player had the benefit of being involved at all. It means that the organization thought highly enough of the player at the time to give them a shot. Often, most prospects don't even get that. Therefore, those who do shouldn't have that experience discounted. It's no accident that most our top ten are players with NHL experience or project to get some in the future. Today is an exception. Our #4 player isn't even a professional yet. It's Michigan defenseman Jon Merrill, and there's a lot of reason as to why he's so exceptional.
#4 - Jon Merrill - D - Height: 6'3" - Weight: 205 lbs. - Age: 21 - 2012-13 Team: Michigan (CCHA)
What Merrill has instead is a very high upside while being a premier player at his level hockey. Since coming to Michigan, he's become a dominant player on their blueline. Merrill, to put it simply, is a strong two-way player. He knows where he needs to be on the ice. He knows how to get stops in his own end, when to contain opposing players, and when to attack them. Merrill's a big guy and he knows how to use his size, but he isn't reckless. In his own end, Merrill is in control. On offense, Merrill is just as adept in his positioning and decision making. He's able to read the play and distribute the puck accordingly. He's also got a pretty good shot. Merrill has run the power play at Michigan and he does it as calm and collected as when he's at even strength or killing penalties. In at least what I've seen of Michigan hockey, Merrill doesn't look like he's putting in much effort at times. That's not a criticism. To me, that's how commanding he is on the ice; it just looks easy for him.
It didn't take long for people to find out how good he was. His freshman year at Michigan was great. He ended up being named to the CCHA's All-Rookie and Second All-Star Team. Those are high achievements for someone who was just getting started playing with men. The fact he stepped in so well at the college game suggests he's got a bright future. Unfortunately, his sophomore year was significantly shortened by a suspension enforced by Michigan head coach Red Berenson for violating team rules. It's unclear exactly what he did wrong, but whatever it was, it must have been bad for Berenson to keep him out for so long. (Additionally, Lou had no complaint. To his credit, he didn't try to get Merrill to sign in juniors to escape the punishment.) That loss of time led to a not-as-strong second year at Michigan. It still speaks to his talent level that he was still selected to the United States' World Junior Championship team in spite of not playing. It speaks to his quality that prior to this year, Daver Karnosky of USCHO considered Merrill as one of the best defensemen in the country despite missing so much of 2011-12. But the lost time hurt what could have been.
If you think about it, it really says a lot about the player if his biggest problem is "off-ice incidents." Personally and at In Lou We Trust, we try not to pry into what players do away from the game. I don't know what exactly Merrill did that caused him to drop all the way to the Devils at 38th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft. I don't know what exactly Merrill did that led to his suspension in 2011-12. I am not particularly interested in getting on a high horse and proclaim what a player should do away from the rink provided it doesn't affect his game and doesn't break the law. Team sports are all about what a player does within their role and how they help out their team. They don't have to be "good guys," for lack of a better term. To put it another way, if you can play, you can play.
Merrill can certainly play. It's not just that he's so talented now, but he could really take it to the next level. Corey Pronman of Hockey's Prospectus believes he could be a first pairing defenseman. Hockey's Future profile compares him to Ryan Suter of all players. The Devils don't have a lot of high-ceiling prospects at any position. They have plenty of prospects who may become useful players in the middle or the bottom end of the depth charts. That's all well and good, but a team really does benefit if a drafted or signed player fills in those higher spots in the lineup. Merrill is the only one who's still a prospect who could be that kind of player. As many defenseman as they have, a top two-way defender would be most welcomed in the future - assuming Merrill reaches that level.
One can make a great argument about how he really could have turned pro this summer. He's already a top-tier defenseman in college and he's proven his worth at the international level as a junior. There's not much more he can do short of leading Michigan to some kind of title, but that's not necessarily going to make Merrill better. He has decided to return to Michigan for his junior season instead of battle the myriad of defenders for a spot in Albany. Unfortunately, I can't tell you about how he's crushing it while playing top minutes for the maize and blue. He's been injured since the start of the season. Merrill has suffered from a cracked vertebrae from a hit from behind in Michigan's last exhibition game of the year. He'll return later this year, so any progress is on hold.
Truthfully, all of this put together really explains why we unanimously put Merrill in our top 5. He understands where he needs to be on the ice at both ends, he's productive on offense, he plays in all situations and sometimes makes it look easy, and his skillset can translate to the next level. He's a high quality college player who could become a high quality professional player in time. The Devils don't have a lot of those players in the system. Therefore, someone who has been projected to be a big minutes player and has been an excellent player at his current level of hockey just stands out even more. When he is able to get back onto the ice, I hope he continues to grow so that when he does sign a professional contract, he's ready to contribute right away. I look forward to seeing Merrill in New Jersey someday.
Now that you know how we ranked Jon Merrill, we want to know your opinion. What do you think of Jon Merrill as a player? Do you think he stands more to gain playing at Michigan this year? What do you expect him to do in his junior year? When do you think he'll sign a contract and turn into a professional player? Lastly, what do you think of our ranking? Is it too high, too low, or just about right? Please leave your comments and other thoughts about Merrill in the comments. Thank you for reading.