When the Golden Knights took Jon Merrill in the NHL expansion draft from New Jersey a couple of years ago, they basically were betting on the come.
Merrill had a little NHL experience. But the former University of Michigan defenseman could do a lot of things. He could skate. He could move the puck. He could take the body. He had good size. Basically, there were enough tools in the box for general manager George McPhee to take a shot.
And he didn’t cost a lot either. According to CapFriendly.com, Merrill was scheduled to make only $1,137,500 for 2017-18, so it was well within GMGM’s budget.
But Merrill didn’t get a chance to show he was ready to be an NHL regular. In 34 games last season, he averaged just over 16 minutes of ice time, had one goal and two assists. Many fans thought he wouldn’t be back for 2018-19.
However, he had a lot going for him. There was the salary. He was only 26. He was a good soldier and was liked by his teammates and coaches. It was more a matter of opportunity.
And when Nate Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the season, Merrill got his chance. Coach Gerard Gallant paired him with Nick Holden, the free agent the Knights had acquired over the summer and who had essentially replaced Luca Sbisa.
But the pair struggled to find chemistry early. They were vulnerable in their own end. They made questionable decisions in when to pinch to keep the play alive in the offensive zone. And the skeptics figured Merrill would be the scapegoat and would be sent to the minors or just waived outright.
Yet, he stuck around after Schmidt returned Nov. 18. He didn’t see a lot of ice time and was a healthy scratch for 17 games of an 18-game stretch. But he never stopped working and assistant coach Ryan McGill, who works with the defensemen, kept Merrill engaged and didn’t let his confidence sag. At some point, another opportunity would present itself.
And it did. On Dec. 17, Colin Miller sustained an upper body injury against Columbus. He has been out ever since. But unlike Schmidt’s suspension where Merrill may have played somewhat cautiously, he has been aggressive and sharp. Gallant reunited Holden with Merrill as the third D pairing (Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are the top pair with Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore the second pairing) and voila! They’ve connected and have been a big part of the Knights’ recent success. The team won seven straight and have won eight of their last 10. The Knights have 60 points, one less than second-place San Jose and two behind first-place Calgary.