You probably haven’t noticed the Michigan hockey player wearing the No. 24 sweater, so here’s an introduction: his name is Jon Merrill, he’s a sophomore defender, and he’s pretty decent.
Jokes, jokes. Of course you’ve noticed Merrill, Michigan’s best all-around talent and brightest professional prospect by a lofty margin. His return from a three-month-long suspension has coincided with Michigan’s current 6-1-1 tear through the CCHA that has put the Wolverines just three points behind first-place Ferris State.
You know Merrill. Just don’t tell him — for his own sake.
“I just try to keep it simple and try to — try not to get noticed, really,” Merrill said. “As a defenseman, you want to go out there, (and) you don’t want anyone to notice you’ve been out there.”
Mission not quite accomplished. Or is it?
Merrill’s return made a big splash because he’s one of Michigan’s best players, and it’s continued to generate buzz because of the team’s success with him in the lineup. Yet players such as sophomore forward Luke Moffatt said the 6-foot-3 Merrill makes a big impact because he’s inconspicuous on the ice.
Moffatt had a hard time articulating what Merrill does for Michigan. At one point, he described Merrill as “a presence.” Other times, he said the opposite.
“He’s a little more, I wouldn’t say steady, but more…” Moffatt said, his voice trailing off. “Passive? I don’t know what the right word is there.”
In measurable terms, Merrill’s contributions are much clearer. He’s big, physical and talented. He can move the puck to forwards quickly or fire shots through the defense.
Merrill and junior defenseman Lee Moffie have complemented each other well. Moffie prefers to fire shots on cage and attack the goal on rushes. Merrill is content to stay back.
And both special-teams units have made giant leaps in production after Merrill’s return. Against Miami this past weekend, the penalty kill thwarted all 12 of the RedHawks’ power plays, while Michigan scored twice. Merrill assisted on both goals.
“He’s a top defenseman, and we knew that coming in when he got to play again,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
Michigan’s goals-against average is more than 1.3 goals better with Merrill than without. That can’t all be because of one player, can it?
The short answer: no.
As Berenson noted, the Wolverines caught fire during the Great Lakes Invitational, and Merrill’s return the following series just added fuel to said fire.
Few players, especially defensemen, are worth 1.3 goals per game.
Yet Merrill’s name in the lineup is worth more than its weight in goals because of the depth he adds.
“He knocks a pretty good player out of the lineup every night by him being in the lineup so that makes our defense better top to bottom,” Berenson said.
Plus there’s that on-ice presence. Moffatt fumbled through words like “passive” and “steady.” Maybe it’s just Merrill’s confidence, which shines through in his statements:
“We don’t look it at as something that’s bad, we kind of get excited when we have to kill a penalty. We get momentum out of it.”
“It’s unbelievable when you string a couple wins together, beat some good teams. The locker room, the morale is up, everyone’s excited. And going into games, instead of in November when we thought we were going to lose every game, it’s now we know we’re going to win every game.”
Berenson said Merrill and his teammates enjoy a symbiotic relationship, just like any player on a well-functioning team. Merrill makes the team better, and the team also makes Merrill better.
But his impact was visible to anyone who witnessed the contrast in the Wolverines’ play this weekend to when they met Miami in November.
November’s Michigan team lacked a calming presence in a fast and physical series in a hostile environment.
It got one back in Merrill.
“Even when he wasn’t even playing with us but still practicing with us, it was just good to have him around,” Moffatt said. “(He) really completes our team.”