Once rendered as a highly-touted prospect, 24-year old defenseman Merrill is coming off a third NHL season that was nothing short of disappointing. Injuries and temporary bans to the press box limited Merrill to just 47 games, where he posted career-low totals of one goal and five points. Hoping he would further advance his development this season, Merrill took a considerable step back, which was strongly reflected in how tentatively he was utilized by the coaching staff. Among Devils defensemen to play at least 30 games, Merrill averaged the second-least amount of ice time and was only played more than Eric Gelinas. Merrill’s play was primarily limited to five-on-five situations where he averaged 15:31 of ice time. Only David Schlemko (15:03) and Eric Gelinas (12:34) were used less at even strength. It’s worth mentioning Gelinas didn’t finish the season with the Devils, while Schlemko’s even strength time was offset by his team defense-leading 2:00 of average power play time per game.
Merrill’s turbulent year has a lot of similarities to the brief yet disenchanting stint first-year Devils defenseman John Moore had with the Arizona Coyotes. Although Moore’s time in the Desert spanned only 20 games, he registered one goal, five points, and was among Arizona’s least-used defensemen at even strength. Moore was primarily used on Arizona’s power play where attained four out of his five points. Granted the Coyotes took a harsh nosedive during the latter-half of the 2014-2015 season, Moore would go -11 during his Arizona tenure, while not excelling in any major defensive categories. Although he showed flashes of his strong play during the man-advantage, Moore clearly didn’t live up to Arizona’s expectations, who opted not to issue a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent at just 25-years old.
Considering that Merrill in an eerily similar situation with the Devils as Moore was with Arizona last summer, it raises the question of how likely Merrill is to face the same fate. Stretching back to last season, Merrill has been a popular trade subject and has been involved in every conceivable scenario proposed by fans and other Devils hockey writers. An argument can be made that Merrill is still an undeveloped commodity whose situation in New Jersey isn’t contusive to his development, so let’s keep in mind how blue liners typically require more time before they finally hit their stride and break out. In addition to the Devil’s rebuilding state, an outsider observer might conclude the Devils ought to be more patient with Merrill. With the organization’s influx of defensive prospects that will fight for roster spots on next year’s roster along with defensemen like Adam Larsson, Andy Greene, and (to an arguable extent) Damon Severson in the fold, it’s looking like Merrill’s services aren’t as necessary as they might have been in previous years.
While I’m sure Shero won’t hesitate to move Merrill if he can, I think the chances that happens grow slimmer each day. Merrill would have been long gone by now if other teams had interest in him and even if he’s included in a trade, other teams will much rather swap him for one of New Jersey’s blue chip defensive prospects. When compared to his former teammate Eric Gelinas, the only reason Shero was able to trade was because of the upside he possesses with his booming shot and offensive prowess. Merrill like I previously mentioned, hasn’t shown any promise at specializing in any playing situation, let alone maintaining any consistency in his two-way game.
Any team that may have interest in Merrill would probably wait for him to hit the free agent market if the Devils don’t give him a pre-July 1st a qualifying offer. As an unrestricted free agent, Merrill can be picked up for pennies by a team looking to supplement their defensive depth or offer bigger opportunities to a fresh young face. It’s entirely possible that Merrill contains a great deal of untapped potential in his game, but it’s looking more like an unnecessary investment of time and money for the Devils. Especially with Shero showing no hesitation of parting ways with the assets that the previous management regime developed, we very well may have seen Merrill play his last game in a Devils uniform.