U.S. World Junior Spotlight: Jon Merrill

Jon Merrill - Photo: USA Hockey

Jon Merrill – Defenseman
Hometown:
 Brighton, Mich.     Birthdate: February 3, 1992
Height/Weight: 6’3″ / 206
Current Team: University of Michigan (CCHA)
NHL Rights: New Jersey Devils (2010, 2nd Rd., 38th Overall)
National Team Experience: National Team Development Program (2008-2010), U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team (gold, 2009; gold, 2010); U.S. National Junior Team (bronze, 2010)

This player spotlight should be about how well Jon Merrill is playing and how much he could bring to the U.S. World Junior Team. Unfortunately, it’s about whether Merrill will even be part of the team at all and it has nothing to do with his performance on the ice.

That’s mainly because Merrill hasn’t seen the ice yet this season. If you hadn’t heard, Merrill was suspended for the first 12 games of the season by Michigan head coach Red Berenson for an unspecified violation of team rules. Merrill hasn’t even been allowed to be part of the team, which includes being held out of practice.

It sounds as though Merrill is expected to accomplish certain things before he’s allowed back with the team. Michael Spath of Michigan’s Rivals site, The Wolverine, reported that Merrill is unlikely to return to game action until after Christmas, as opposed to mid-November as previously expected.

Rumors swirled that Merrill would sign with the Plymouth Whalers to avoid the suspension and missed ice time, but Spath reported that Merrill would remain at Michigan as he informed Plymouth he wasn’t interested in leaving. Perhaps that shows Merrill’s respect of accountability. Maybe he just loves Michigan that much. Either way, missing this much time in a crucial development year and swallowing it can’t be easy.

That Merrill wouldn’t play in a game in the half season leading up to the World Junior Championship should be (and likely is) of great concern to Dean Blais and his staff. The fact that Merrill’s barely even practiced on ice this year should be downright horrifying. Merrill’s last meaningful ice time came at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in early August.

Dean Blais is a bit of an old-school guy. Whatever disciplinary action Michigan took will likely be under consideration for Blais, director of player personnel Tim Taylor and GM Jim Johannson. That, combined with the lack of ice time for Merrill could be curtains for the super skilled defenseman.

He’s not completely dead in the water. Merrill has a bunch of international experience and success, and was one of the best players in the nation down the stretch last season, helping Michigan get to the national championship game. There are just going to be concerns of distraction, fitness level, rustiness, and all of those things will factor into the decision.

What will make this decision so difficult is that Merrill is good. I mean, really good. Last year, he was quite possibly Team USA’s best defenseman at the WJC and was one of the best D-men in college hockey last year as a fresheman. He is a natural talent with a tremendous hockey brain and skills to match. Not having him would hurt, especially if somehow Justin Faulk (currently in the AHL after a brief NHL stint) is not made available by the Hurricanes organization. Right off the bat, you’ve lost your two best available defensemen if that scenario plays out.

USA Hockey does have somewhat of a luxury with a very deep defensive group in the 1992 birth year, and a few good ones among the 1993s as well. It’s a bunch deeper with Merrill near the top, but Team USA could get by without him if they need to. It will just be that much tougher in Alberta.

Another bit of good news is that Team USA has under-ager Seth Jones, who plays a very similar style to Merrill. He’s only 17, but plays such a mature, steady game, he could hop in there. While not as developed, Jones has that solid hockey mind and fantastic skills. Whether Merrill is there or not, Jones will probably be a part of the team, but without Merrill, Jones would likely have to take on a more substantial role.

Now, there is a chance that Merrill rejoins Michigan and is ready to go before the WJC, but he would probably only get a few games in the absolute best case before the roster is formulated. I would imagine it would require an extensive amount of contact between USA Hockey, Michigan and Merrill to make a final decision, but it’s one that won’t be easy.

It is not unprecedented for USA Hockey to bring a player to the WJC that had missed the first half of his season. Mike Carman was academically ineligible for the first half of the 2007-08 season at the University of Minnesota. Despite not playing a single game for the Gophers that year, he made the team. Like Merrill, he had previous World Junior experience. Unlike Merrill, USA Hockey invited Carman to participate in the 2007 Deutschland Cup just over a month prior to naming the team. So he saw some game action against professional players in Germany. Since Merrill’s suspension is disciplinary and not academic, will USA Hockey do this again?

I’m not saying Merrill shouldn’t make the team. There are so many factors that are not known by the public. All I know is that he’s got an old-school coach to convince he belongs and a bunch of hungry guys ready to take his spot.

It’s a shame the season had to start this way for Merrill, who has been in trouble before. When people make mistakes, there are consequences and perhaps it’s better Merrill learn this lesson now, while he’s young. It’s just too bad it’s at the expense of his hockey development, his team and his chances of making Team USA for a very important tournament.

Notes on Merrill:
– Skated for the Little Caesar’s youth hockey program in Michigan
– Played two years at the National Team Development Program
– Scored two goals including the game-winner for Michigan at The Big Chill hockey game at Michigan Stadium, in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a hockey game.
– Led all Michigan blueliners as a freshman with 25 points, earning All-CCHA Second Team, CCHA All-Rookie Team, All-USCHO Second Team, INCH All-Freshman Team and All-Frozen Four honors
Merrill’s Michigan Bio
Merrill’s USA Hockey Bio

Every week, until the U.S. National Junior Team’s pre-tournament camp roster is announced, United States of Hockey will highlight a candidate for the team. We’ll be taking a look at players from the near locks to the dark-horse candidates to the out-of-left-field possibilities.

Previous Player Spotlights:
Emerson Etem
Jack Campbell

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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