You can never have too many defencemen, especially in this condensed season and with the playoffs fast approaching. Jon Merrill will provide an additional option for the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff and shore up a back end that has suffered the loss of Ben Chiarot.
Merrill’s acquisition is also another indication that Montreal didn’t feel confident having one of Victor Mete and Alexander Romanov on the right side. The team also wanted a partner for Romanov who could prop up his strengths and allow him to succeed.
Is that Merrill? Probably.
The defenceman has some clear advantages over Mete (we will get into those below), on top of having experience, making him potentially more capable of handling the pressure of playing with a young, mistake-prone defenceman. If need be, Merrill can also fill a role higher in the lineup without his game crumbling under pressure, and play his off-side. Detroit’s coaching staff used him there the entire season.
The defenceman, like most effective shutdown blue-liners, is best described as a package of strong habits. Sometimes coaches get overexcited when talking about their reliable bottom-four defenceman, overselling their attributes, but everything you usually hear about defensive types is true for Merrill.
Capable of handling top opposition? Check.
Good gap? Check.
Ability to break the cycle? Check.
Good first pass? Check.
The defenceman plays a physical brand of hockey. He doesn’t punish like a prime Shea Weber, but engages opponents successfully again and again. He approaches them with stick extended, goes through their hands with his hips, and shoves them away from possession. It’s the same on puck retrievals. Merrill makes sure to get in front of forecheckers, cutting their access to the disc, before moving it away — the kind of skill that Mete can’t provide.
Defensively, you shouldn’t expect Merrill to position himself two steps ahead of the opposition. He mostly reacts to the play, but he registers threats better than the average NHL defender due to consistent shoulder-checks and a constant mental engagement in the game.
His strong, athletic posture, combined with an aggressive mentality, helps Merrill break opposing plays early. When he has the necessary support from forwards, he steps up on opponents as early as when they’re between blue lines. Detroit wanted assertiveness in their neutral-zone backcheck defence, and Merrill responded accordingly.
The Red Wings and the Habs play a similar defensive-zone system, which should help the defenceman’s transition. Both teams collapse as a five-man unit on opponents, who turn their back on the wall and ask of their defencemen to follow their check to the top of the zone.
In terms of pure tools, Merrill is about an NHL-average skater, maybe slightly above that. Opponents can’t elude his mobility and reach that easily. His puck-handling lags behind his skating, however. He handles the puck too much with his bottom hand, which makes for larger, choppier motions that don’t give much precision, especially under pressure.
Does it matter? In transition at least, not really. Merrill knows his limitations. He won’t launch himself into two-zone carries or try to outmanoeuvre multiple forecheckers. And his passing game is generally on point, again due to strong habits.
Merrill aims to create as much space as possible for teammates. He holds on to the puck for an extra half-second and makes sure to attract forecheckers to him. He keeps the puck at his hip, hides his next play, and waits for opponents to really commit to pressuring/stealing the puck from him. Only then does he pass.
This kind of patience and poise, added to his ability to engage on opponents and keep them on his back are sufficient to characterize Merrill as a puck-mover and not just a ‘‘stay-at-home’’ defenceman. You won’t see Jeff Petry-like breakout sequences out of Merrill, but you can expect him to pull off more zone exits than Joel Edmundson.
The charts above compare Merrill’s play to Edmundson’s from 2018 to 2020. Neutral-zone defence and breakout passing stand out as comparative strengths for Merrill.
Unsurprisingly, the defenceman doesn’t fare as well offensively. He didn’t score this season for Detroit and has never broken 15 points in his career. His handling skills hold him back and there aren’t any agility moves like cutbacks or skate fakes in his repertoire. When the puck hits his stick at the point, it either moves to his partner or to the net.
The one saving grace of Merrill’s offence is again his passing habits, the way he attracts defenders before moving the puck, buying a bit more time for his teammates to make plays with it. It isn’t much, but already more than a couple of Habs defencemen can accomplish.
Merrill might not be worth getting excited about, but he is effective and didn’t cost much — a fifth rounder in a weaker draft and Hayden Verbeek, a player I always had a soft spot for due to his impressive speed, but who will never be an NHL regular.
The price that the Tampa Bay Lightning paid for a similarly skilled David Savard — a first- and third round pick — paints Montreal’s trade for Merrill in an even more positive light. The ex-Detroit back won’t solve all the issues on Montreal’s back end, but he should become a useful piece for Dominique Ducharme, who didn’t seem to be a fan of his current depth defencemen, and play an important role on the Montreal’s 24th-ranked penalty kill.