In his 31 games since being promoted to the main roster on November 3, Jon has been the most consistent and reliable of any of the vaunted Devils call-ups. After a few early blunders and turnovers during his pairing with Gelinas, which lead to the two rookies being split-up, Merrill's defensive game has continued to progress to a legitimate, NHL level.
In spite of his youth, the 22-year-old rookie from the University of Michigan plays a smart, confident, hard-working game. He blocks shots, makes the right passes, isn't afraid of contact and doesn't shy away from the hard work in the corners. He also shows very strong stick skills for someone so young, and is consistently able to disrupt the opponent's play with a timely poke-check or blocked pass that sends the play the other way. This is made all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Merrill had only 26 games of experience at the AHL level to call upon before being thrust onto the big stage.
In short, he has the instincts and plays the defensive game that his young counterparts haven't quite grasped yet. That is why he has gained the trust of coach Pete DeBoer, earning plenty of time with the Devils' power play and penalty kill units. In any game, any situation, No. 34 is a go to guy for the red and black. So, it should come as no surprise that during last night's overtime period against an Edmonton team that had won five of six, the Devils rookie mainstay was out there on the blue-line, a decision that would be rewarded moments later when Jon Merrill netted his first NHL goal to secure a much needed two points for his struggling team.
After his game winning, overtime goal over Ilya Bryzgalov, it would appear that the shadow, not to mention the significant weight of 30 scoreless games, has been lifted off Merrill. After falling, almost inexplicably, to the second round of the draft because of some very real questions about his maturity and character, Merrill has worked to shed the image of him that initially overshadowed his strong defensive mind, and solid offensive game in the eyes of NHL scouts. Jon spent several years splitting time between the University of Michigan and the US National U17 and U18 teams to prove that he could be the impact defender that scouts initially had near the top of their draft boards. The composed defenseman that helped the Devils come out on top last night is that player.
Merrill is the sole survivor in this pool of talented young defensemen for a reason. While he doesn't have the top-flight expectations of Larsson, or the eye-popping numbers of Gelinas, Merrill has the strong fundamental skills to play and make a consistent difference at the NHL level on the defensive side of the ice. That is what anybody should be looking for, someone who can bring a bit of stability to a defense, and a roster, that is in constant flux.