Tuesday, August 14, 2012

One To Watch: New Jersey Devils

Tough days lay ahead for the Devils both on the ice and off it. Losing a franchise player in Zach Parise could have a huge effect on the standings and inside the room as players decide whether they want to stay with the franchise or not. Fortunately Martin Brodeur is still around and there is another bona fide star on the roster in Ilya Kovalchuk. They'll need a sophomore year from Adam Henrique that matches his rookie one and for Adam Larsson to develop quickly. 

For as much praise as the Devils get for their track record at the draft, for me it's a bit of a case of living off your reputation. There's no question that in the 1990's and early 2000's David Conte and his staff mined more than their fair share of diamonds from the rough. But since Travis Zajac in 2004... forgive me for saying it but there really isn't much to brag about... is there?

There are a few guys I like, most of them blueliners; Former Michigan Wolverine Brandon Burlon is among that list as is 2012 draftee Damon Severson

I have nothing against 2011 picks Reid Boucher and Blake Coleman. Goalie Scott Wedgewood could be one to keep tabs on this year for sure. 

I don't think there is any question though which Devils prospect has the greatest number of questions around him for this year. He might also just happen to have the most upside of any other New Jersey non-pro. 

Photo: Andy Devlin

Jon Merrill (D)

Michigan Wolverines
6'3, 210 lbs
Drafted 38th Overall in 2010

I don't think I have heard anyone say a negative thing about the way Jon Merrill plays the game. He's a mobile, banging defenceman with a low panic threshold. As a player, he's the kind of guy that every team would love to have. 

Unfortunately Merrill's problems have all come off the ice and they've been significant.

Going back to his draft year in 2010 I spoke with scouts who said that Merrill, an eventual 2nd round pick, was slotted so far down their list that he was basically unranked. 

There was an incident while playing for the US-NTDP that earned him a suspension from the team and a huge black mark from some scouts. I've heard the explanation of the incident from two separate scouts from two separate organizations, similar enough tales to get the jist of it. I'm not going to relay what I was told because frankly it was juvenile, disgusting and amounts to second (or third) hand hearsay. I don't have any reason to believe it's not true but I don't know that it is.

Photo: IIHF Images
One of those scouts said they challenged Merrill on the incident during his combine interview and didn't like the way he responded. It showed a level of immaturity that some teams obviously didn't want to add to their organization. 

Merrill was chosen by the Devils in the second round, well after a player of his skills and potential would normally go. His freshman season at Michigan was a success, 25 points in 42 games and a trip to the Frozen Four. 

Last year was a completely different story. Head coach Red Berenson suspended Merrill for undisclosed infractions against team policy and one of the key Wolverines didn't play with the team until the second half of the season. 

It was a huge reality check for Merrill. He was allowed to tryout for USA Hockey's entry to the 2012 WJC in Alberta and despite not playing a meaningful game since the previous April, easily made the team and was arguably the best American in the tournament. 

I had a chance to speak with Merrill upon his initial arrival to Edmonton before the tournament began. I asked him about his Michigan suspension and have to admit being impressed with the way he handled the questioning. 
"It's just something that... I have to get my life going in the right direction," he began, "I violated some team rules back in Michigan and I'm facing the consequences of that now."
Merrill also told me that he hoped getting to play for USA would help get his playing career back on track and in the right direction too. 

I don't know exactly which demons Merrill had been battling through but the situation reminded me of the junior year of North Dakota forward Matt Frattin. In that case, alcohol had derailed the talented forward and the team went so far as to send him back home to Edmonton to straighten out. It worked and Frattin returned to the team and was a Hobey Baker finalist the next year as a senior. Now he's in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Photo: Robin Buckson
Merrill returned to ice with the Wolverines after the WJC and ended the year with 11 points in 19 games. No one was really sure what would happen next for him, most assumed he'd turn a new page by turning pro with the Devils but that is not the case. 

I was very surprised to hear the news that Merrill was returning to Michigan. I don't know if there was an offer from the Devils or not but I'm choosing to believe that Merrill is returning to college by choice. I'd like to think that he has a feeling of unfinished business with the program and maybe even that he owes Red Berenson and his teammates on some level.

If that's not a storyline heading into the new year I don't know what is.

At Michigan he'll have the role of playing mentor to incoming freshman Jacob Trouba (WPG). Michael Spath, scribe with TheWolverine.com, appeared recently on our show and suggested the two might play together. If Merrill is going to be in a position of showing Trouba the ropes, there is a degree of trust and responsibility that would go along with that. I can't see Red Berenson, or any other coach, risking the development of a player like Trouba so that tells me that there is a belief that Merrill has indeed matured.

I hope that's the case. I may not have liked the Jon Merrill that was described to me in his draft year but I can't help but pull for the guy I met face to face last year. There's a heck of a talent in there and it would be great to see him take the next step, just like Matt Frattin did and I'm sure others have before them both.      

For those reasons, Jon Merrill is "One to Watch" for me in 2012-13.

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