by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
For Jon Merrill, patience is a virtue both on and off the ice.
In his first full season with the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League, the 21-year-old product of the University of Michigan is exercising his skills on both sides of the puck. He has notched seven points in just nine games played so far this season, ranking fourth on the team and first among Albany’s defensemen in scoring.
“He sees the ice well, and he certainly has some patience and composure with the puck,” said Rick Kowalsky, head coach of New Jersey’s top development affiliate. “He’s very calm – he reads the refs, he reads pressure, he reads the forecheck well and is very comfortable making plays under pressure with guys on his back.”
Merrill, who was drafted by New Jersey in the second round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, debated turning pro after his sophomore year, but opted to remain in Ann Arbor and play for Michigan as a junior.
“I just felt like it was the right decision for myself,” said Merrill. “I was happy with the team we had at Michigan and just wanted to give it one more crack.”
Merrill’s momentum going into the 2012-13 season came to a screeching halt during an exhibition game against the University of Windsor on Oct. 9.
He took an awkward fall, first onto the ice and then into the boards, after absorbing a hit while shielding the puck. He knew he was in pain, but wasn’t sure of the severity of the injury until later on.
“I didn’t really know what was going on initially, and then I got the diagnosis [that it was] a fractured vertebra,” recalls Merrill. “Looking back, it was pretty scary and I was very fortunate to have been able to walk away like I did.”
Merrill missed 19 games for the Wolverines as a result of the injury, and was confined to a full upper-body neck brace that left him almost completely immobilized for three months.
“I think the biggest thing was staying focused mentally because there wasn’t much I could do [about the situation],” said Merrill. “The toughest part was just staying positive, staying around the team, staying active and knowing that there was going to be a time when I could come back.
“It was a long recovery process, but I think I came back stronger and better and haven’t had any problems with it since. It’s in the past now and I’m moving forward.”
For the 6-foot-4 Merrill, who was born in Oklahoma City and raised in eastern Michigan, a large portion of moving forward has included adapting to the transition from college hockey to the professional leagues.
“I think the biggest adjustment is that there’s obviously more games and the schedule is completely different,” said Merrill. “There are classes and different things you have to do in college, but [in the pros] it’s more 100 percent focused on hockey and I think that’s a good thing.
“The other aspect is being a pro off the ice – going about your business and doing things the right way.”
Kowalsky, in his fourth year as head coach for Albany, has guided his fair share of rookies through their transition to the pros.
“I think with a lot of these young guys, you have to look at them right around that 10-game mark – where the honeymoon phase when they’re excited to be playing pro hockey fades and you get into tougher parts of the schedule,” said Kowalsky.
“The grind of the AHL can expose guys in different areas. Moving forward, this is going to be a big test for him – the bus trips, the three-in-threes and the fact that he’s playing against men, not boys. Continuing to prepare and learning how to be a pro day in and day out will help him in that regard.”
Merrill signed with New Jersey and joined the AHL Devils last spring after Michigan’s season came to a close. He netted one goal and seven assists for Albany in 12 games, an experience he drew upon while preparing for this year.
“Strength and conditioning and being in good enough shape to play all the games,” said Merrill on the things he is working on most in 2013-14. “Coming up from college, [here in the pros] it’s a lot more of just making sure you’re in shape and ready to go every night.”
Merrill understands the importance of preparation – both individually and as a team.
“The goal is for us to continue to play well and just to keep winning games,” said Merrill. “I think we have a good team right now and we’re doing a lot of things right.”
When asked what role he sees himself establishing this season, Merrill’s answer was clear.
“Anything the team needs me to do, I’m here to do.”
“We knew coming into the season that he’d be a guy that we’d rely on,” said Kowalsky. “We kind of had him penciled in as a ‘quarterback,’ if you will.
“[Eric] Gelinas has been in that role for us for the past couple of years. We made the decision to have them play on the power play together, and that worked. Eric is on recall right now in New Jersey, so Jon is going to continue to be our quarterback.”
Merrill’s role as a leader plays to both his mental and physical strengths on the ice, according to his coach.
“He just has a tendency to be able to slow things down and see things at a lesser speed than everyone else,” said Kowalsky. “Whether he’s putting pucks on the net for tips or whether he has the chance for a one-timer, his head is always up and he does a good job of getting things through.
“That being said, he’s been solid defensively as well, and I think that has to be his focus. With the better the players he plays alongside, potentially and hopefully at the next level, I think he’s going to continue to get better and that skill set is going to come out even more.”
Merrill’s calmness on the ice echoes through his off-ice mentality, as is evident in his advice to other young hockey players who may be recovering from an injury.
“Just know that there’s going to be a time when you’re going to be able to come back,” said Merrill. “Listen to your doctors and trainers and do all that you can do. When you come back really isn’t in your control – it’s a matter of staying patient and waiting your turn.”