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Has Jon Merrill Improved as a Defenseman in 2016-17?

Jon Merrill has yet to emerge as a solid defenseman for the New Jersey Devils, but he has received more and more difficult minutes in 2017. Has he really made progress? This post takes a closer look at his stats to find out.

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils
Jon Merrill: Has he improved in this season?
Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

As the New Jersey Devils are rebuilding, general manager Ray Shero still has to make plenty of decisions on whether current players fit into the future, either short-term or long-term. In Alex’s call for young players to stick around, he noted the following regarding a not-so-young and not-so-inexperienced defenseman, Jon Merrill:

How about with Jon Merrill? Last year he was considered an absolute bust, but he has improved this year. Extra playing time gives them a chance to evaluate just how much growth he has shown, and perhaps answer the question is it worth protecting him over someone like John Moore or Ben Lovejoy?

These are good questions that Shero and his staff will have to answer. Has Merrill really improved in this season? Is it enough to keep him around longer? Let’s take a closer look at how Merrill has performed to find out. Note: This was written prior to the March 5, 2017 game against Columbus.

Some background is in order first. It was not that long ago that Jon Merrill was one of the young defensemen that led New Jersey Devils fans to be excited for the future of the blueline. The hope back as, say, 2012, was that Merrill, Adam Larsson, Alex Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Damon Severson would form a solid defensive core. Now we know better. Gelinas proved to be only a shooter and was dealt. Urbom didn’t make it. Larsson became good, but he wasn’t the stud one hoped when he was drafted. At least he was worth enough to get Taylor Hall. Severson is still in progress. I haven’t been impressed with Merrill so far. He certainly is not an offensive defenseman, but I don’t think he’s so good in his own end either. I’ve called him an enigma and I think that term made sense back when he was re-signed last summer. Here is my summary of the player:

The best word I can use to describe Merrill’s time with the Devils so far is enigma. No, it’s not a code word for a Russian/European player that one may not understand. Merrill is a giant question mark to me. I’ll watch him on some nights and conclude that he understands how to be a non-flashy, decent defenseman in the NHL. Other nights - or even other shifts in the same game - he’ll look like an AHL player. Here are his numbers at Puckalytics. While the team’s Corsi For% took a dive over the last two years, two straight years in the 46th percentile is ugly. Over the last two seasons, Merrill has had a SA/60 rate of 28.4. That puts him squarely in the middle among all defenseman in 5-on-5 play from 2014-15 through to 2015-16. That’s not bad, but it’s also not all that good relative to others in that same time frame. Again, he’s not a standout on that front. He also has primarily been a 5-on-5 player. Merrill does not play on the power play; he only received secondary minutes on the penalty kill and still was well behind Moore and Schlemko. As for offense, Merrill has not produced many shots or points. I don’t even know how to describe or even predict what the 24-year will become as a defenseman. Right now, I think he’ll just be a guy. Someone to really fill space as opposed to someone who can command minutes, if that makes sense.

Has Merrill just been a guy? According to his usage this season, the Devils coaches don’t seem to think so. In the 2016 portion of this season, Merrill did not make his season debut until November 17. Due to who was on the roster, Merrill was limited to an average ice time of 16:04 and averaged 22.2 shifts per game in the 14 games he played before this calendar year. He was a healthy scratch at times until the end of the year. But he was able to get in late. When Andy Greene was injured during the January 3, 2017 game in Carolina, Merrill was one of the defensemen to see a raise in usage. Merrill saw his ice time increase and played at least twenty minutes per game in ten out of the next twelve games, including that one. The run ended when Merrill was held out with an upper body injury after the January 31, 2017 game in Detroit. When he returned against Colorado on February 14, Merrill has since played at least seventeen minutes per game in eight of the next nine games. While that was not as much as before, it wasn’t as low as it was prior to 2017. So far in this calendar year, Merrill’s average ice time has been 20:17 and averaged 27.2 shifts per game. That’s still a big increase in both categories. Therefore, it can be concluded that he has gained trust in the eyes of the coaches.

While Merrill has received more ice time and shifts in 2017, do the stats justify such an increase? I want to focus on 5-on-5 data since that will really show how he has performed in the run of play. Corsica has all of that information and the custom query can break it down between his 2016 and 2017 parts of this season. Here are the results:

Jon Merrill 5 on 5 Stats as of 3-5-2017
Jon Merrill 5 on 5 Stats as of 3-5-2017
Jon Merrill 5 on 5 Stats as of 3-5-2017 Pt. 2
Jon Merrill 5 on 5 Stats as of 3-5-2017 Pt. 2

In addition to more ice time, Jon Merrill has definitely had a harder minutes. His offensive zone start ratio went from an easy 55% to a very low 32% over the past twenty-two games. Merrill has been used more in defensive situations and has played against tougher competition. That’s apparent in the drop in so many of these stats. His CA/60 and SA/60 rose from his limited usage to more difficult minutes. His CF% and SF% dropped 4-5%. His relative CF% is notable. With more limited minutes and controlled situations, the run of play improved when Merrill stepped on the ice. In the face of tougher competition and more competition, that has went in the opposite direction. I’m not surprised by these figures getting worse since, again, Merrill played more and more difficult minutes. If they were better, then this would be outright impressive.

There are two areas of improvement, though. The first is with what Merrill probably does not control much of: the percentages. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid were porous behind Merrill in 2016 and the rest of the Devils skaters certainly did not score many goals. As such, it is easy to identify goals against just when #7 was out there and that can color an opinion of the player. That has improved in 2017. Even with eight more games and over 150 more 5-on-5 minutes, Merrill has not seen as many goals against as he did in all of the 2016 portion of this season. Schneider and Kinkaid were better; and there’s the bonus of a superior shooting percentage. Given that Merrill has all of one goal, four assists, and 32 shots on net in 36 games this season, it’s fair to say that he hasn’t helped on offense. But the improved percentages in 5-on-5 play provides the backdrop for a better opinion. The second area is something Merrill may have more of a hand with: scoring chances. Assuming that Corsica is counting those correctly, the rate of chances against the Devils drastically went down with Merrill on the ice in 2017 compared to the 2016 part of this season. The rate of chances for improved, which may be a function of playing more with better forwards; but the chances against rate dropping speaks well to Merrill’s defensive performance. Even with more shots against, they’re not necessarily most dangerous shots. That is in his favor. That is a more legitimate improvement in my eyes as how Merrill positions himself and how he covers players off the puck can contribute to reducing chances.

Comparisons with other Devils defensemen in 2017 so far further strengthens the notion that Merrill has improved. According to Corsica, Andy Greene, Kyle Quincey, Ben Lovejoy, Damon Severson, Merrill and Steve Santini all played at least 200 5-on-5 minutes from January 1 to March 4 of this year. Only Quincey (25.88) and Santini (28.29) posted better SA/60 rates than Merrill in this time frame. Only Quincey (50%), Severson (49.33%), and Santini (46.66%) had better CF% percentages than Merrill in this time frame. (Aside: Those three are also the only positive relative CF% players in 2017 so far.) Lastly, only Santini has a lower scoring chance per sixty minute rate than Merrill in this time frame. Keep in mind that Quincey and Santini have not played as much or as difficult situations as Merrill. Yes, Merrill has been stinger than Greene and Lovejoy since the 2017 part of the season began. While the numbers on their own aren’t so good, #7 has not been the most porous defenseman on the squad. That furthers the notion that he has improved to some degree.

So my answer to the first question, based on my interpretation of these stats in light of his increased usage, is that, yes, Merrill has been playing better. The data points to progress - particularly in comparison to other defenders who played significant minutes - and so I can say that. While a number of metrics went in the wrong direction with the increase in usage, it hasn’t been a total drop off and he hasn’t been horrid at all. He hasn’t been a sieve for shots like Lovejoy or John Moore. He hasn’t been lit up, although his control of how well Schneider and Kinkaid perform may be minimal. He hasn’t been creating offense, but that’s nothing new for Merrill, who has 35 points in 201 NHL games in his career. He isn’t a liability for penalties, although he never really has been in his career. Still, Merrill has responded at least decently with the challenge of going from 55% offensive zone starts and around 16 minutes per game to 32% offensive zone starts and 18-21 minutes per game.

The follow up question of whether his improvement is enough to keep him around longer remains to be seen. While I think his numbers in 2017 are defensible due to tougher competition,they still are not that great on their own. If he’s not going to produce much on offense, then how much is conceded when he’s on the ice matters much more. It may be better than others on the Devils, but that does not automatically make him good or valuable enough to keep around. Yes, he may be better at this than Lovejoy and Moore. And he may be doing a better job than Greene to a degree in this season. But that doesn’t automatically mean he’s so much better that he should be kept around and those guys should go.

Further, it is entirely possible that Merrill has played well for a short period of time - 22 games is pretty short - but will not be able to sustain it. We’ve seen it with other players, such as Damon Severson (who deserves a close look of his own soon) in his rookie year. It’s entirely possible that Merrill plays like more of a liability in the next seventeen or so games, which undoes this perceived progress. Or he can sustain or improve further to help his cause. I’m skeptical of that if only because Merrill is in his fourth NHL season and he now has 201 games under his belt. I understand that defensemen may take longer to develop, but I’m really sure what he has to left to develop. He isn’t going to generate offense or take a lot of shots and he’s shown few signs of doing so. How he positions himself is now really up to whether he’s able to recognize the play, which he should know by know.

I will concede that Merrill has been more than just a guy in the lineup in 2016-17. He’s received more minutes and responsibilities first out of necessity and then on purpose by the coaches in 2017. Those were not reverted to what he had in the 2016 portion of this season when he came back on Valentine’s Day from an upper body injury. Merrill has not really changed his game, but he wasn’t rolled over like other Devils defenseman have been this season when he received a raise in minutes and defensive zone starts. That chances went down suggests improvement in his game as does the fact he compares well with other Devils defenders who played significant minutes since January 1, 2017. I can agree that Merrill has made progress in this season. However, I cannot yet agree that Merrill has progressed so much that it is sustainable. His game is still his game and his stats are still not so impressive on their own. I question whether it’s enough for the Devils to want to keep him around for longer. If Merrill can finish this season strong and sustain the gains he has made into 2017-18, then that would help his cause, whether that’s trying to stay with the Devils or hope for a good deal on the free agent marker in 2018.

That’s how I see it. Please feel free to let me know about what you have seen in Jon Merrill during this season. Would you agree that he has improved? If so, why? If not, why not? What can Merrill do, if anything, to sustain any progress that he has made? Is the progress that he made enough to keep him around? Or should Shero try to move on from Merrill in this offseason or during next season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Merrill in the comments. Thank you for reading.