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Ready or Not, Here Comes Nick Merkley

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What does this new winger have to do to earn another look at the NHL level?

NHL: Florida Panthers at Arizona Coyotes Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Merkley arrived quietly in New Jersey in December of last year, with all the buzz of his trade from Arizona focused on Taylor Hall heading west and defenseman Kevin Bahl coming to Devils. Behind the excitement of Bahl came forwards Nate Schnarr and Nick Merkley. Merkley’s young career has been stunted with injuries and he failed to make the team out of camp in Arizona. Arriving in New Jersey, he was more than ready to play.

Small Sample Size, Big Impact

The Devils staff in Binghamton did their homework on Merkley. He was a talented playmaker and an even better skater who, through circumstances beyond anyone’s control, hadn’t been given half a chance to make an impact in Arizona. In Binghamton, he would be given that chance. They slotted him right into the top line alongside Ben Street and sometimes-NHLer Brett Seney as well as the power play unit, and Merkley delivered with an impressive 19 points in 26 games. After the 21st game, and a whole lot of moving and shaking going on during that time at the NHL club level, the big boys club gave Merkley a call.

It would only be a short opportunity, but Nick Merkley would deliver a performance worth paying attention to. In his first game against Carolina, he picked up his first NHL point with a slick pass to Joey Anderson. In his second game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he’d score his first NHL goal on a rebound from Kevin Rooney to tie the game on the way to a Devils shootout win.

(I do not know why they called him Merkdaddy. I will not be doing that.)

In his third game against Saint Louis, Merkley didn’t have a huge impact, at least partly because of this impact—

—in which Blues player Robert Thomas spears Merkley in the eye and rips his helmet off his head in the process, leaving a gash that would require stitches and some extremely interesting colors for a black eye. The Devils were shut out 3-0, so Merkley wasn’t the only one who didn’t make the score sheet.

Game 4 against the Washington Capitals was also a quiet night for Merkley despite his line’s 69.23%CF. They seemed to have controlled most of the play but they allowed a goal and didn’t provide one, so not the best night for the 4th liners compared to their previous few performances.

A few of the regular NHLers would return to the lineup after Merkley’s 4th game, so his time in the big club came to an end and he returned to Binghamton to play the rest of the shortened season.

What to Expect Now?

Figuratively speaking, the sky’s the limit for a top prospect with limited data and a minimal previous opportunities. Logically speaking, Merkley projects as a middle 6 winger with good hands and skating ability. Since his first game with the Devils he’s made an impact with his effort and physicality, something the Devils sorely need replacement of since our ill-advised trade of former fan-favorite/current Tampa Bay phenom Blake Coleman (but I’m not bitter!). Merkley has some good speed especially in bursts, he’s a talented playmaker often looking for the pass and able to make some creative plays when needed, and so far he puts in the effort on the back and forecheck every shift when he’s not being eye-poked like the three stooges. What does all this mean for the Big Devils? Yet another playmaking winger option for the Devils to look at during camp this coming season.

Main Competition

I say yet another playmaking winger because the Devils have an extremely healthy stock of young playmaking wingers eager for another chance at cracking the NHL main roster. The goal scorer on his first NHL point is arguably his biggest competition though— Joey Anderson may have been an NHL roster regular this past season if not for injury. Additionally, Anderson is one of the only other right shots in the Devils pool of forward prospects. Fellow Binghamton linemate Brett Seney and fellow trade-return prospects Janne Kuokkanen and Nolan Foote are all left shots. Fellow right wing Nathan Bastian lacks the finesse to his game that Merkley brings. Tyce Thompson is another potential right wing, but its not known if he’ll even want to sign a contract with the Devils yet or if he’ll continue his college career with Providence this coming season. It’ll be grinder vs grinder when Anderson and Merkley come face to face in the Devils development camp this upcoming season, both two young wingers eager to make a big impact and get on the roster after injuries stole their previous chances.

3 Step Guide to Making the NHL Roster if you’re Nick Merkley

Step 1: Sign a new contract with the Devils

Merkley’s entry level contract is coming to an end at the eventual end of this season. With the absence of North American hockey, Merkley has signed a contract with Finnish hockey league Liiga for the remainder of the year. The contract does have an NHL-out clause, but the aspiring NHLer will have to be offered and sign another contract first. If you’re the Devils, I see no reason not to offer the kid a two-way contract and a trial at development camp in the upcoming season. If you’re Nick Merkley, I’d sign it.

Step 2: Put up points for Ässät this year

(disclaimer— steps 1 and 2 not necessarily performed in that order)

One major way Merkley can make a big statement before even setting foot on the ice in development camp is to look good in Finland during the offseason. This not only offers him a chance to stay razor sharp where many of his competing players won’t be able to (sorry, collegiate athletes and AHL players) but also to showcase his skills and hand the Devils a strong portfolio to look at as they try to make roster decisions.

Step 3: Show up to development camp and don’t suck

If steps 1 and 2 are performed correctly and Merkley puts up a good showing with Liiga Ässät this fall, the main thing he needs to do in camp is stay consistent and play to his strengths. With several more months of honing his game, he should be extremely tough to bump off the trial roster coming through camp and early preseason.

Will he make the roster, and how?

The Devils have already seen what Merkley’s main competition in Anderson can do in an NHL game with 52 games of NHL experience over the past two seasons. We know what to expect from him— we can always fall back on Anderson if Merkley doesn’t pan out. Merkley has impressed in a much smaller window, and both parties will benefit from a more thorough look. All of this depends mainly on step 1— the Devils need to offer Merkley a new contrat and Merkley needs to accept it. If that happens and Merkley doesn’t royally disappoint or sustain injury during his time in Finland, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Merkley enjoying a good look in a semi-regular role with the Big Devils this coming season.

After all, as they said:

Nick Merkley is a hockey player