During the offseason, The Hockey Writers will be doing a ten-part series on the success stories of the 2013-14 New Jersey Devils. Despite missing the postseason for the second consecutive spring, the Devils had a memorable season that they can build upon for the 2014-15 season. The sixth success story focuses on Devils rookie defenseman Jon Merrill, who had a quiet but steady opening act in the NHL.
Before the season opened, Merrill was fighting for a spot on the New Jersey blue line along with Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom. The Hockey Writers spoke about their quest to open the season in Newark in the following article, “Three Albany Devils Hoping to Say: Goodbye Albany, Hello Newark.” As it turned out, Urbom exited the organization via waivers while Gelinas and Merrill were sent to Albany for the start of the season. Before long, however, injuries struck the Devils defense and Gelinas was called up to New Jersey. He had a successful debut and a solid season and Merrill soon joined him.
After posting a pair of goals and five assists along with an even plus/minus in eleven games with the Albany Devils to open the season, the University of Michigan product made his NHL debut on November 3, 2013, at the Minnesota Wild with Marek Zidlicky as his defensive partner. Unfortunately, it lasted only one minute and sixteen seconds. While retrieving a puck in the corner of the Devils end, he was tripped by Torey Mitchell and slammed into the boards. Dazed with a cut above his left eye, he was helped off the ice.
He returned to game action on November 20 when the Albany Devils hosted the Hartford Wolf Pack. He would play three games in four days before being promoted back to New Jersey, where he would remain for the remainder of the regular season (except for two brief paper transactions where he was sent to Albany).
Merrill laced up his skates for his second NHL game on November 25 at the Prudential Center against the Winnipeg Jets. He was paired with defenseman Peter Harrold. His time on ice was 15:17 which would turn out to be his lowest total for the season. In fact, Merrill was a model of consistency on defense and only dipped below the 16:00 mark for TOI twice during the season (excluding his NHL debut), the other time being on January 30 in a road game at the Dallas Stars.
On November 29 at the Carolina Hurricanes, Merrill picked up his first NHL point when his shot from the blue line was deflected by Dainius Zubrus into the net. He would add three more assists over the course of the next few months before notching his first NHL goal and it was quite memorable.
In the Devils final home game before the Olympic Break (when he would be sent to Albany but did not play), the Edmonton Oilers came to Newark. The two teams traded goals in the first period but Cory Schneider and Ilya Bryzgalov stopped everything that came their way through the remainder of regulation. Then just past the halfway mark of overtime, Michael Ryder found an open Merrill with the puck. From the top of the faceoff circle to the right of Bryzgalov, Merrill took a slapshot that found the back of the net for his first NHL goal. In the process he became the first Devil to score his first NHL goal in overtime.
Relive Jon Merrill’s first NHL goal, an overtime winner against the Edmonton Oilers:
In the month leading up to the Olympic Break, Merrill struggled on the blue line as the league began to catch up to the rookie defenseman. However, following the break Merrill returned to form and on March 23 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Merrill had his first multi-point game in the NHL. The Devils skated to a 3-2 victory over the Maple Leafs with Merrill assisting on a goal by Patrik Elias early in the second period and scoring one of his own, the eventual game-winner, 32 seconds later. Just like the game against the Oilers, Merrill was named the game’s First Star.
In 52 games in which he finished with two goals and nine assists, Merrill eclipsed 20 minutes of TOI 24 times. He played over that mark for four consecutive games on two occasions showing the confidence head coach Peter DeBoer had in the rookie. Merrill played 24:25 on home ice against the Phoenix Coyotes on March 27th for his highest total on the season. Merrill played alongside Zidlicky for most of the contest although he started the season with different partners on defense.
After three games with various defensive partners to open the season, Merrill and Gelinas were a pairing for six consecutive games before DeBoer switched Gelinas with Anton Volchenkov. After seven games and the return of Bryce Salvador to the lineup in late December, Merrill was reunited with Gelinas. As the Devils approached the Olympic Break, Merrill saw time with Harrold and Zidlicky. Following the break, Merrill and Gelinas once again were a pairing but as the games became more important following the trade deadline in the Devils chase for the playoffs, DeBoer paired Merrill with Zidlicky.
Following the Devils season finale victory over the Boston Bruins, Merrill was sent to the Albany Devils to help them in their chase for the Calder Cup. Merrill notched an assist in Albany’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Portland Pirates in their penultimate game of the season that clinched a spot in the playoffs for the A-Devils.
In four postseason games against the St. John’s IceCaps, Merrill finished with a goal, an assist, and a -2 plus/minus. He had a rough Game 3 at St. John’s when he was nabbed for three minor penalties, all for a different infraction, but the A-Devils penalty kill was a perfect six for six on the night in an IceCaps 1-0 win. The Devils lost the series to the eventual Eastern Conference Champions three games to one.
Merrill had a rookie season that he will certainly be able to build upon moving forward. After a painful opening night in the NHL, Merrill returned with a vengeance and became one of DeBoer’s most consistent defensemen despite his rookie status. His time in Albany both during the season as well as the playoffs will further help the development of one of New Jersey’s future stars on defense.