2017-18 Player Review: Jon Merrill played well enough but remains on the outside looking in

Merrill did enough to earn a two-year extension but likely will be Vegas’ seventh defenseman once again.

In the 2017-18 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2017-18 performances of each member of the Golden Knights. We have assigned each player a grade, which is a Knights On Ice composite grade made up of our individual ratings. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in both the regular season and playoffs, especially with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role. Note: Only skaters who played in at least 20 games and goalies who played in at least 10 games were included.

Jon Merrill was one of 13 defensemen Vegas selected in last summer’s expansion draft. In four seasons with the Devils, he had shown himself to be a middle-of-the-pack player with ability and potential despite demonstrating an inconsistent game. He showed flashes of being the mobile defensive defenseman scouts thought he could be coming out of the University of Michigan, but he also displayed some bad tendencies in his own end. His offensive zone start percentage of 40.48 in 2016-17 played a role in his below-average possession stats, as he did play difficult minutes for New Jersey. But at some point the former second-round pick (38th overall in 2010) lost favor in New Jersey, ultimately resulting in his availability in the expansion draft. Despite the influx of rearguards in Vegas, Merrill stuck around, though he played just 34 games. Here’s an overview of his 2017-18 season.

Season in review

Merrill has never been known for his offense, and he didn’t stray from the norm last season, scoring just one goal and two assists for a total of three points in 34 games, all of which were career lows.

As such, Merrill’s points-per-game rate (0.09) was the second-lowest on the Knights, and his 0.33 points per 60 minutes ranked last on the team.

He averaged the lowest ice time per game among Vegas defensemen (16:05) and was used very sparingly on special teams; he played a total of just 2:46 on the power play and 13:46 on the penalty kill all year.

Despite the lack of production, the 26-year-old did see a notable change in his plus/minus for the year. After finishing minus-3, minus-14, minus-15 and minus-9 (a combined minus-41) in four seasons with New Jersey, he ended up with a plus-seven rating last season, finishing in the green for the first time in his career. His plus-seven was good for seventh-best on the Knights.

The Oklahoma City native has never been one to rack up the points (he has just 39 in 250 career games), but his possession numbers were solid for Vegas last season, and many categories improved further in the playoffs.

Merrill’s 5-on-5 possession stats

SeasonCF%SF%GF%SCF%HDCF%HDGF%On-ice save %Off. zone faceoff %
2016-17 regular (NJD)48.6548.84049.8349.3548.5791.4140.48
2017-18 regular50.150.658.8254.250.9844.4494.3353.44
2017-18 postseason54.9445.9566.6758.066066.6796.6758.57

This was a change from his time with the Devils, though he did play sheltered minutes under Gerard Gallant, which was not the case in New Jersey.

Merrill’s Goals For percentage in the regular season (58.82) ranked first among Knights defensemen who played in at least two games (a.k.a. not Zach Whitecloud), and his scoring chance share (54.2 percent) was good for second among defensemen, again excluding Whitecloud.

His Goals For (66.67) and High-Danger Goals For (66.67) percentages in the postseason were affected by the small sample size of just eight games. The only category in which Merrill’s numbers saw a drop in the postseason was shot share. That’s not shocking considering he averaged less than one shot per game in the regular season, and his zone start percentage was below 50 percent in the first-round series against Los Angeles.

Merrill ranked second among defensemen in Corsi For percentage (54.94), first in scoring chance share (58.06 percent) and first in high-danger CF% (60) in the postseason, though he played fewer games than every other Knights defenseman.

Despite the strong possession numbers, it would appear that defensive partner Colin Miller played a rather large role in driving the play, at least in the regular season. In the graph below you can see that the difference is striking. (Note: the black “6” is obscured by the black “18”).

Though Merrill’s possession numbers and overall play did improve in the postseason, not surprisingly he played eight playoff games without recording a point. He managed a plus-two rating and finished with two shots and 10 penalty minutes.

Standout moment

Merrill’s first and only goal of the season was a significant one. In a highly-anticipated matchup, Pittsburgh came to Sin City in mid-December to face former franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. The game was tied in the third period until Merrill did this:

Merrill’s booming shot off a drop pass from Erik Haula turned out to be the game-winning tally as Fleury and the Knights came away with a 2-1 victory.

KOI composite grade: B-

Knights On Ice awarded Merrill a composite grade of B-, with individual grades ranging from C to B+.

Clearly, the grade is not based on his easy-to-remember stat line (1-2—3), nor is it based on any one specific area of Merrill’s 2017-18 performance.

That’s partly because Merrill doesn’t particularly “excel” in any aspect of the game, or at least he didn’t this past season. He didn’t play all too much, and when he was in the lineup he played sheltered minutes. However, he did enough to make a case to George McPhee, who rewarded him with a two-year, $2.75 million contract extension in January.

That certainly doesn’t mean he should be judged by the contract he signs or the fact that he even got an offer (see: Ryan Reaves), but it is an indication that the organization believes in his progression and long-term potential.

He hasn’t put it together yet. He got a similar “show me” two-year deal from the Devils a few seasons ago, and he was eventually entrusted with more ice time and more difficult minutes. The Knights didn’t need him to do that last year, so Merrill filled the role he was asked to fill, and he did it well.

His possession numbers in Year 1 were strong even if at least partially skewed by his favorable assignments.  But he still played well and was more than just a serviceable third-pair defenseman. He stepped up in the postseason in his first taste of playoff action, playing especially well in the first-round series against Los Angeles, which was as tight as it gets. His offensive zone start percentage in that four-game series was 48.72, lower than that of Deryk Engelland (53.19), Shea Theodore (51.92) and Miller (51.11).

All things considered, Merrill exceeded pre-season expectations and played well when called upon. If he could learn to use his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame to his advantage, he could become a more imposing force on the blue line. His utter lack of shot generation is another flaw in his game, but he remains a work in progress for Vegas. There is talent there, and there’s a motivated player looking to climb the depth chart, which makes the upcoming season of great importance for Merrill’s future in Vegas.

Looking ahead to 2018-19

Merrill’s two-year contract with an AAV of $1.375 million will kick in at the start of this season. All signs point towards him eventually filling the role of the seventh defenseman on the roster, especially with the offseason acquisition of Nick Holden. Merrill could very well see more action early on because of the suspension to Nate Schmidt, though it’s a position Merrill will have to earn since there are other players vying for the same spot.

Nothing about Merrill’s game jumps out at you, but one could say the same about many bottom-pair defensemen. Merrill has room to grow, and at age 26 he is almost entering his prime. He showed a lot of potential in New Jersey, which is a big reason why McPhee picked him in the expansion draft; now it’s just a matter of what Merrill makes of his opportunity, and it starts this week in training camp.

How would you grade Merrill’s 2017-18 performance?

C- or below2