Earlier this evening, the Las Vegas Golden Knights announced their initial roster during the 2017 NHL Awards Ceremony. They would do so throughout the night, announcing their thirty selections in four groups. The New Jersey Devils faithful wondering who the Knights would take did not have to wait long. In their first group of selections to be announced, defenseman Jon Merrill was named as being selected by the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The Devils decided to protect four defensemen and four skaters along with Cory Schneider. Merrill was one of multiple defensemen exposed along with Ben Lovejoy and Dalton Prout. Instead of picking up a significant contract like Mike Cammalleri’s, a veteran like Lovejoy, a warm body like Prout or Devante Smith-Pelly, Las Vegas went with the 25-year old defender that has not amounted to a whole lot in New Jersey. While this post is late with respect to the news, this is a good time as any to reflect on the defenseman, what he did, what he was and was not about, and how this pick by Las Vegas impacts the Devils.
Merrill was essentially part of a group that warranted some hype earlier in this decade. While the Devils traded their first round pick in 2010 as part of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, they did get Atlanta’s second rounder and used it to draft Merrill. The thought at the time was that the Devils potentially found a first-round talent early in the second round. Merrill would be part of a group of young defensemen prospects that would include Eric Gelinas, Alexander Urbom, Adam Larsson, and Damon Severson. Merrill’s time in Michigan was rocky to say the least with a suspension for some issue that was never revealed and injury. Yet, there was hope he’d grow into a contributor at the NHL level. In 2012, it was reasonable to think the Devils would have a talented group of young blueliners for the future. We know better now and Merrill’s departure leaves only one of those members left: the talented Damon Severson.
What did Merrill end up doing? Surprising to me, he’s been around quite a lot. Merrill has played 216 games with New Jersey since 2013 on top of an additional 31 (27 regular season, 4 playoff games) with Albany. How was he? Well, prior to this season, my quick summary was that he was just a guy. He had a large frame at 6’3” and 205 pounds, but he was not a particularly physical player. He was not slow, but nobody would call him quick or a particularly adept skater. He certainly was not an offensive player. Not with 36 total points, not so much power play time (less than 163 total minutes), and 170 total shots in those 216 regular season games.
Defensively, it was a struggle at times - more so than one would expect from a young defenseman. There would be shifts where he seemingly understood exactly what to do and execute it cleanly. And then later in the same game, he’d get lost in his own end and generally be ineffective. I must say he showed some signs of improvement in this past season - which took a lot for me to say since I wasn’t a big fan of his for years. And in a post from earlier today, CJ pointed out that Merrill’s underlying numbers were quite good; enough to persuasively argue that he would have been a more worthy choice of protection over John Moore. Perhaps it is enough to give one hope that he could be more than just a guy. Kept to a limited role, Merrill performed well enough. Could he sustain said improvements? Possibly, but he won’t get the chance to sustain any gains from this past season in Newark.
That said, I do not see this as a significant loss. After all, the Devils defense was bad last season, there weren’t several must-keep players. Merrill had a lot of opportunities in New Jersey and time to be something more than someone to bolster the depth of a blueline, someone to be a decent third-pairing defenseman. After all that and even in agreeing that he improved in 2016-17, it is still difficult to pinpoint what he did that was anything close to exceptional or even stand out about him. Those players aren’t all that essential; third-pairing defenders that don’t produce or do a whole lot that’s exceptional aren’t uncommon. Again, I now generally agree with CJ’s thesis that he (or someone else?) should have at least been protected over Moore. But I think his selection by Las Vegas does not really impact the Devils defense or the team all that much. The Devils still need help on defense from a talent perspective. This was true yesterday, now, and probably tomorrow (and maybe even after next Saturday). They did not gain much in salary cap space as Merrill has one year left on a contract that will pay him just shy of $1.14 million per CapFriendly. The Devils still get to enjoy the two years left on Ben Lovejoy’s and Mike Cammalleri’s contracts, provided neither are bought out or dealt or something. The acquisition of Mirco Mueller means that he - who is 22 and of similar build to Merrill - has the chance to just step into Merrill’s spot.
Was this the best outcome for New Jersey? No. If Las Vegas took Cammalleri’s contract or picked up a player likely to do very little next season like Prout or Smith-Pelly, then that would have been more ideal. But this is not a bad outcome. Merrill being taken should not really change New Jersey’s plans for the future on defense. He wasn’t an essential defenseman even last season; his loss is not that significant. His selection now may have just moved up a potential departure after this coming season, when his contract ended. Plus, the best Devil left exposed, Beau Bennett, still remains on the roster to potentially be re-signed. Most of all, Ray Shero did not need to make a side deal that would have cost him future draft picks to have Las Vegas make a more favorable choice. I’m ultimately fine with this being the outcome of the 2017 Expansion Draft for New Jersey.
As for Merrill, well, we’ll see if he stays in Las Vegas. As I understand it, a number of their selections tonight may be flipped as soon as tomorrow morning for other players. I don’t know if Merrill would be one of them, though. Either way, I get the sense that while Las Vegas could have fielded a competitive roster with who was left exposed, they may be willing to suffer now, pick up assets for the near future (which is necessary in that they have no prospect pipeline or farm team at the moment, they need to build both up), and put together a stronger squad in a few years. We’ll see if it works out that way and if management and ownership are comfortable with it. Check out Knights on Ice from time to time to see how that is going.
That’s how I see it, anyway. I want to know what you think. What was your reaction to Jon Merrill being announced as Las Vegas’ selection from New Jersey? Is Merrill’s departure significant; will he be missed? Do you wish it was someone else, and if so, who and why? Should Shero have made a side deal, or are you fine with Merrill being the one to go? Will Merrill even stay a Golden Knight? Please leave your answers and thoughts about Merrill and Las Vegas’ expansion draft selections in the comments. Thank you for reading.