2018-19 Player Review: Jon Merrill was the surprise of the season

The Golden Knights’ sixth defenseman through the 2018-19 season should get more time going forward.

In the 2018-19 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2018-19 performances of each member of the Golden Knights. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in both the regular season and playoffs, especially with regard to preseason expectations and how that player performed in his particular role.

Jon Merrill was acquired from the New Jersey Devils, one of the original 30 picks that made up the Vegas Golden Knights’ roster from the 2017 Expansion Draft. Since then, he’s spent time on the bottom pairing and as the seventh defenseman. That’s where he spent the 2018-19 season, playing inconsistently until he proved good enough to keep a spot on the third pairing, including playing all seven playoff games against the San Jose Sharks.

Merrill played 64 games for the Golden Knights last season, scoring just 15 points, but there’s proof in his stats that he should likely have played more, including in a more important role. I’ve come down from the mountain to deliver this message: Jon Merrill is shockingly good.

Season in review

Merrill didn’t have the most explosive offensive numbers. Eight of his 15 points (three goals, five assists) were primary. But what lays underneath is what shows Merrill to be one of the Golden Knights’ best defensemen.

His 0.91 points per 60 at even strength were second best on the roster, behind only Shea Theodore. His relative expected goal share (4.85), led the Golden Knights’ defense. His 6.5 goals above replacement at even strength, according to Evolving Hockey’s model, was 43rd among NHL defensemen this past season, and his 0.9 wins above replacement were 66th.

All that leads to this: Merrill was a net positive in all aspects of the game in 2018-19, including the offensive zone and defensive zone.

Merrill made a positive impact on the offense, as the Golden Knights got more shots off from basically everywhere, but especially the net front and the stretch of ice that runs vertically called the royal road.

Merrill also impacted the Golden Knights’ defense positively as well.

That’s better than any third-pairing defenseman has any right to be. He helped direct shots away from the same areas he was able to help get shots for the offense, and there were very few shots allowed in general.

Merrill had a very similar effect on the penalty kill, despite his few minutes. Like at even strength, his numbers should earn him a look at more ice time in the future.

It makes sense, then, that both of Merrill’s most common defensive partners, both the talented Colin Miller and less so Nick Holden, benefited from his presence.

Jon Merrill

PartnerTime on IceCorsi For %Shot ShareGoal ShareExpected Goal ShareHigh-Danger ShareOffensive Zone Start
Miller w/Merrill374:10:0059.6357.956459.2865.6767.19
Miller w/o Merrill710:28:0055.4852.5441.7950.9956.0457.53
Holden w/Merrill369:42:0060.0358.735058.2162.564.26
Holden w/o Merrill633:33:0053.0351.7950.9156.3349.5751.72

Again, that’s with two very different partners. Merrill was able to support both of them and continue to drive offense and keep a consistently excellent defense. That continued in the playoffs, where Merrill had a 67.23 percent expected goal share and 61.11 percent shot share against a very tough team in the San Jose Sharks.

The one area Merrill was weak was penalties. He’d be more available for penalty killing if he wasn’t in the box as much as he was. He took 15 more penalties than he drew at even strength last season. Everywhere else, Merrill aided Vegas.

Standout moment

Merrill’s zero points in the playoffs makes this harder to decide, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have highlights. Merrill’s a defenseman, after all, and one of the most important moments of his season came in that capacity. In Game 6 against San Jose, in overtime, the Sharks drove into the Golden Knights’ zone and got a puck past Marc-Andre Fleury, but not past Merrill and Colin Miller:

Again, that’s a guy who struggled to find consistent minutes in the regular season. Offensively, Merrill also impressed:

Just a gorgeous pass down ice, allowing for a breakaway from a player who isn’t the most speedy Golden Knight. This was in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the best team in the 2018-19 regular season. Down two, the Golden Knights figured to be out of it late in the second period. Then Merrill made that pass to Eakin, which led to a goal. In the third period, the Golden Knights got another one. They would win the game in a shootout.

Looking ahead

Merrill has one more year remaining on his contract. He did far more than enough to play consistent minutes next season. He should even get a look at a top-four role, playing with, hopefully, Nate Schmidt (with whom Merrill had a 61.76 percent shot share and 73.99 percent expected goal share in 32 minutes last season).

If the Golden Knights decide to go another direction, letting Schmidt shelter a young defenseman like Nicolas Hague or Zach Whitecloud (or Dylan Coghlan), Merrill might be the optimal choice to shield Deryk Engelland or Holden. It would let Theodore finally reach his potential while limiting the damage done.

Hopefully he gets a more extended look at both the power play and penalty kill as well - if he can stay out of the box.

How would you grade Jon Merrill’s 2018-19 performance