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The Jon Merrill Conundrum - What Kind of Defensemen Will He Become?

Jon Merrill is one of five defensemen under the age of 25 who have played significantly for the New Jersey Devils this season. Whereas the other four have shown signs of what they'll become, Merrill's performances and stats have not provided clarity.

I also don't know what this facial expression by Merrill is all about either.  I chalk this up to randomness, though.
I also don't know what this facial expression by Merrill is all about either. I chalk this up to randomness, though.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While the 2014-15 New Jersey Devils are short on young forwards (among other issues), they have featured young defensemen that have been developed through the system.  The results of that have been mixed to say the least. Damon Severson has displayed that he is on his way to being a very good defensemen if only by starting most of the season with Andy Greene and not getting wrecked.  Adam Larsson has seemingly fixed a number of issues from previous seasons and looks more comfortable in a top-four spot for now.  Eric Gelinas has the Truth. But he has to be utilized appropriately as outside of shooting the puck, he has a lot to work on.  Seth Helgeson has been called up out of necessity and has proven he can at least be a more physical defensemen lower on the depth chart.  Then there is Jon Merrill.   And I don't know what his path he's really on.

Typically, all young players will have some kind of struggle or rough patch of games.  But as they play more games, one can see why they're in the NHL, how they're growing, and what kind of player they might become one day.  I would agree it takes a bit more time for a defenseman to develop as many of the attributes needed to be good at the position - such as positioning, gap control, awareness on the ice - requires game experience as much as practice.   That said, with the four other under-25 defensemen, I have a sense of what their future holds.  Severson will be a very good defender, Larsson will be a good if not flashy defender, Gelinas can at least be a specialist, and Helgeson might be a #7 or a #8 option.  Merrill, for lack of a better verb, confuses me.

In general, Corsi For percentage (the number of shooting attempts by the Devils over the total number of shooting attempts when the player is on the ice) provides a good sense of what happens when a player is on the ice at even strength.  Is the play going forward? Are they attacking or defending more?  Ideally, good things are happening when that percentage is above 50%.  According to War on Ice, Merrill has a CF% of 46.2% this season.  This places him sixth on the team between Bryce Salvador (46.4%) and Helgeson (43.4%).  That's not good, especially since Merrill was a 53.6% last season - albeit that still placed him sixth among defensemen on that far-superior-in-possession Devils team.   What this means is that when #7 is out there, the opposition is doing more than the Devils - and that doesn't reflect too well on Merrill's abilities.

Corsi (and Fenwick) are influenced by utilization.  Specifically, where they get their zone starts, who they play against, and who they are with.  War on Ice has a helpful chart that graphs relative Corsi (difference of on-ice Corsi and off-ice Corsi, a positive number means a positive influence by that player) with offensive zone starts (offensive starts over total) and quality of competition based on time on ice.   Here's how all ten Devils defensemen have been used at even strength this season:

1-11-2015 Devils Dmen Usage War on Ice chart

The pale shade of red means that possession has gone worse when Merrill is on the ice.  It's not nearly as bad as, say, Mark Fraser or Peter Harrold among others.  However, this also doesn't reflect too well for Merrill.  He's been given roughly 50% offensive to defensive zone starts and a decent, but not too difficult level of competition.  That he's putting up around a 46% in Corsi with this utilization suggests he's not doing so well in the bigger picture.  (Aside: You can also see why fans should be thrilled with Severson so far, Larsson is doing relatively well given a lot of defensive starts, and that Gelinas has been protected.)  Last season, Merrill faced a similar level of competition and got more offensive zone starts.  He was also still on the wrong end of relative Corsi%.

On top of this, consider Merrill's production in the NHL so far. What I look for are shots.  Goals and points come and go, especially on this team.  But the shots tell me that he's getting the puck and getting lanes to shoot through. Last season, Merrill had 45 shots in 52 games to go with two goals and nine assists. This season, he currently has 23 shots in 30 games to go with two goals and six assists.  This shows a bit of progress.  He should be able to set new highs in points and maybe in goals this season.  However, his shooting rate has dropped a little bit.  He may get more shots with more games played this season, but he's not firing away enough to suggest he's got a strong offensive game.

To an extent, I have to go based on what I've seen as biased as my own mind and eyes are.  Merrill has maintained good discipline since joining the NHL with respect to penalties.  However, his discipline has wavered in other areas.  There are shifts where he looks absolutely fine.  Solid defending, good decision making, and not making any problems out there.  There are others where he looks totally out of sorts.  Such as ones where he's attempting clearances away from the boards when it's the better option or right towards opposing players.  He'll be in good position to keep guys from the outside one play and then have guys get inside him with ease on the next.  Even established players will have off nights or bad shifts, but it's so varied with Merrill so far that I'm not quite sure what's closer to what he'll become.  I'm concerned that it's more than just simple inconsistency now that he's 82 games into a NHL career.  I admit my own failings to confirmation bias, but I can't discuss Merrill without pointing out what I see.

From what I've observed and what the underlying numbers suggest, this makes Merrill's ice time just as confusing as to what he'll become.  I get that he's had to be used more often due to injuries, but his average ice time this season is 21:56 per game.   That's the fourth highest on the team right now and he has only had one game where he played less than 17 minutes all season. Merrill has been used on the penalty kill and the power play such that it's more than just spot minutes.  This in spite of the fact that he hasn't been particularly good in possession against a decent competition and that he hasn't been particularly notable from an offensive standpoint.   The latter is irksome since Andy Greene, someone who plays against the toughs and still has a higher shot rate than Merrill, has been denied a regular PP spot.  Merrill has one, albeit not a featured one.  The penalty kill is one thing, considering who's been out injured and the fact that I really don't like seeing the likes of Marek Zidlicky in defense-first situation.  In any case, Merrill hasn't been a top possession player on his own team, he hasn't been particularly adept as a shooter or a passer, and somehow he's a top-four defenseman.  Yes, I know Severson is out now but an average of nearly 22 minutes per game doesn't come just by filling in for another defender.

I will say this for Merrill.  He's been very fine next to Marek Zidlicky.  In fact, the With or Without You stats at Hockey Analysis show that Merrill has been better with Zidlicky this season (53.4%) than any other defenseman he's been regularly playing with. Merrill is slightly better with Larsson but that was only for 40 minutes of ice time, which isn't all that much.  Over the past two seasons, Merrill has had only two defensive partners with over 200 minutes of ice time: Zidlicky and Gelinas - and he's been better with Zidlicky.  So the fact that the co-coaches have kept those together recently is a good thing for Merrill and the team as a whole. That said, it makes me wonder whether that's because Zidlicky, who typically is the main distributor, and so Merrill doesn't have to be relied on for much of the offense from the back?  Though, if that's the case, then is he good enough defensively?  Perhaps there's something there, since Zidlicky has typically never been a defensive stalwart.

Ultimately, this isn't just a conundrum for me but also the team.  How the Devils gauge Merrill's growth and his potential will become a factor what they do with the defense.  The team can fit all of the younger players now, but there will come a point where they will have to make space as others are ready to come up through the system.  None of them will be turning UFA soon, but there is only so much ice time to go around.  Additionally, the fact that the Devils do have young defensemen with talent could help them with their issue of lacking talented and useful forwards.  My point is that I would not be surprised if one of the current group of young defensemen is traded.  It may even be Merrill if the team doesn't think he's all that compared to Severson or Larsson.  If they think Merrill will develop into a solid player, then they could try to move someone else  (my guess is Gelinas) when others make their case for a spot on defense.  But if Merrill isn't progressing to what is desired, then it may be best to move him now.

I understand this is a lot for someone who's only played 82 games in the National Hockey League.  Yet, it appears to me that his inclusion in the lineup is secure - now under two coaching staffs - despite having auspicious underlying numbers and varying levels of play.  I feel like there's something I'm not seeing in Merrill, on the ice or in the stats, that would make his usage seem more sensible beyond the fact that there are injured players in the lineup. Again, he hasn't played less than 17 minutes in a game with the exception of the recent Buffalo game.  The team wasn't always hurting when Merrill was active.  But is he really growing and to what will he grow into?  Is he playing all that well now? (46.2% CF suggests no, he's not.) Will he even be good at that?   I do not know, and I hope you have some kind of answers.  Let me know what you think about Merrill in the comments.  Thank you for reading.