What Happened to Jon Merrill?

Okay seriously, who kidnapped Jon Merrill and replaced him with someone actually good at hockey. Its like almost overnight he went from 'Merrible' to the Devils best defenseman over the past handful of games. Merrill who turns 25 in February, was injured in the preseason and started the year on the IR. He made his season debut on Nov. 17th and has played in 21 games since. For the majority of those games you could make the argument that he was the Devils worst defenseman. Merrill hadn't been playing every game with head coach John Hynes making him a healthy scratch now and then. However a concussion to John Moore on Dec. 31st and an Upper-Body-Injury (UBI) to Captain Andy Greene, Coach Hynes had no choice but to give Jon Merrill more minutes. Devils fans were certain that the team was doomed having lost two of their top three blueliners including their best penalty killer. But then the unexpected happened. Jon Merrill actually started playing well. With an increase in playing time Merrill's level of play also increased. Early in the season Merrill looked lost in the sauce, every time he touched the puck he made the whole crowd nervous. Merrill either made an ill advised pass to his partner or chucked the puck up the ice usually resulting in an icing. In the defensive zone he was frequently out of position and/or getting manhandled along the boards and worst of all leaving shot lanes open and not sacrificing his body, which makes sense considering thats how he broke his finger in the preseason. In the offensive zone, Merrill committed countless turnovers, couldn't keep the puck in the zone and looked awkward with the puck. Merrill looked scared and uncomfortable. He lacked confidence and it showed in his play. When Greene and Moore went on the IR with their respective injuries it was essentially a trial by fire. Suddenly in the blink of an eye Merrill was playing incredible, he started playing the puck himself and avoiding defenders with grace rather than crack under pressure. He started moving the puck well with crisp passing and smooth skating. In the offensive zone, he kept the puck in well and want cycling the puck, making effective passes and generating offense, even if his point total hasn't reflected his offensive improvement. In the defensive zone his board play drastically improved he blocked shots without fear and he started shutting down high volume scorers. Merrill is playing with confidence, and it shows. Asides from a few gaffs Merrill has been a lockdown defenseman and has been reflected in the Devils play over the past  8 games. The Devils are (4-2-2) over that span collecting a 3-0 win over the Bruins, a 3-1 win over the Hurricanes, a 2-1 win over the Flames and a 2-1 OT win against the Canucks. A 4-2 loss to the Leafs and a closer-than-it-looked 3-0 loss to the Panthers have been the only regulation losses. Both of the Devils' overtime losses came against the Edmonton Oilers who are in second place in the Pacific Division. In those 8 games Merrill's stat line is 1G, 2 A, 3P, +3, 6 PIM, 7 SOG, 7 Hits, 15 BLK, 4 GV, 5 TK. Merrill is also averaging just over 21:00 minutes or TOI per game and spending roughly 3 minutes on the PK per game. During that span, the stats that stick out to are the point total, blocks, hits, and penalty minutes. Merrill has 3/4th of his points this season in the 8 game span. 12 PIM means he's staying out of the box, and 15 blocks means he's getting into the shot lanes, making up almost half of his blocked shots on the year. The one blemish in Merrill's play over this span, came in Thursday nights game against the Oilers. Video below.

[Draisaitl drills OT winner]

Although it wasn't Merrill's fault, as a lazy change from Miles Wood and Adam Henrique put #7 in a 2-on-1 situation against the Oilers two best players, Draisaitl and McDavid. Merrill played the odd man rush well, challenging the now 20 year old phenom and forcing him to make a play. Normally, you leave the puck carrier to the goaltender, but Merrill had to respect McDavid considering his track record of embarrassing goalies in 1-on-1 situations. Look at what McDavid did to Patrice Bergeron, whose a perennial Selke award candidate (best defensive forward) Zdeno Chara, a veteran shut down defenseman and Top 4 youngster Brandon Carlo just a few nights before. Sportsnet author Dimitri Filipovic describes how lethal McDavid is in just one tweet (and video). 

So you can see why Merrill had to show #97 some respect.

All in all, Merrill's improved play, along with contributions from players like rookie Steven Santini, Kyle Palmieiri and with Taylor Hall finding his scoring touch, the Devils, as bad as their record is (18-18-9, 45 points) remain only 5 points away from a Wildcard spot. For those fans who are craving the return of Adam Larsson, Merrill's efforts to block shots, shutting down teams' top players and leading by example are slightly reminiscent of the Swedish ex-Devil.  If Merrill can keep this up, he could be the guy who fills the gaping hole left by Larsson. Of course Merrill has a lot more to prove, but he's making huge strides in the right direction and can become a great asset for the Devils if he stays consistent. 

*** All stats retrieved from NHL.com***

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