In 2009-10, the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team probably sported the most talented d-corps the program has ever had. Justin Faulk has a strong chance at going in the second half of the second round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Stephen Johns projects to go somewhere in the second round, Jarred Tinordi has a legitimate shot of going late in the first round or at least early in the second, and Derek Forbort seems to be a certainty to go somewhere in the teens, or at least the very early 20's, and the one who's received hype the longest - Jonathan Merrill - is still the one who has the highest upside. Merrill's place on the prospect radar screen was established early when he committed to the University of Michigan as a 14-year-old in 2006. It was continued when he was offered a spot on the USTNDP's 1992 team before the Evaluation Camp and was sustained when he played for Team USA at the World Under-18 Championships as a U-17. It was furthered when he was one of two U-18 defensemen named to Team USA's preliminary roster for the 2010 World Junior Championships (Faulk being the other).
Merrill didn't make that World Junior Championship team, and a team suspension due to off-ice conduct in January dulled his luster a little bit, but few young defensemen can read a breakout as well as Merrill. Comparable to a skilled quarterback, Merrill is able to quickly check each of his receiver options, make the decision, and connect with a hard, crisp, accurate pass. An average defenseman can find the first two options, but Merrill can extend that to the third and even fourth option while beginning to skate the puck up the ice.
He does need to eliminate the gaff a game he tends to make (which usually is not on the breakout) and he needs to improve the technical aspects of his defensive game, but with his combination of vision, skill, and size (6-foot-3.25, 198 pounds), Merrill can be as good and could still end up the best of the USNTDP's 1992 d-corp 5, 10, or 15 years down the road.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey was able to talk briefly with Merrill in person after a USHL contest in late February and re-start the interview in March over the phone. Merrill discussed the USNTDP's jump to the USHL, his development in Ann Arbor the past two seasons, his commitment to Michigan, whether he'd consider playing major juniors, his minor hockey in Flint and Detroit, his prospects for the 2010 Draft, and the NHL defensemen he looks up to most.
McKeen's: The first time we were able to talk for a bit was after a USHL game in Lincoln. With the USHL, what was your reaction when you learned the USNTDP would start playing in the United States Hockey League and how do you find it compares to the collegiate games you guys play?
Merrill: We were really excited to find out we were playing in that league. As far as how it stacks up to the college game, I think it's really similar because most of those guys are going to college next, and the games are very similar, where it's fast-paced and tough and usually low-scoring. It's tough to really get points, the same as it is in college. You've got to bring it every night, because everyone plays tough every night. So, it's good. It's good for us.
McKeen's: Last season, when you were with the U-17 team, your junior schedule was comprised of North American Hockey League games, and you guys played 42 of the team's 58 games in the NAHL, and even as the Under-17 team, you guys did pretty well in that league. Unfortunately, the guys this year, in the USHL, last time I looked, only had five wins or so. So, do you think it's helpful for the U-17's to play in the USHL, to face that caliber of competition already, or is it possibly harmful to lose the vast majority of their games?
Merrill: No, I think it's absolutely beneficial to play in the USHL over the NAHL. The NAHL is a great league. I mean, it worked for us last year. I think the younger team this year is doing really well. They're not really struggling because of so many losses. I think, now, they're on a two-game win streak now, so they're finally starting to figure it out, which is good, and leading into next year, they should be in good shape. So, it's good.
McKeen's: You're right. They are now starting to win a bit more and are at least more competitive.
Merrill: Right, yeah. I think the last few months here, when they've lost, it was in overtime, or a shootout, or by a goal here or there. So, they're playing the teams pretty tough still.
McKeen's: You touched on this a little bit, but what are the biggest differences between the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League and, going back to that time for you?
Merrill: I don't think there's much difference. As far as midget hockey, NAHL, and the USHL is concerned, they all play, or try to play, the same game, and that's a really North American-style game, dump and chase, real physical, fast. Like, if you can skate and hit, you can be pretty successful in all three of those levels of hockey. But, obviously, the skill level varies among the players as you go up. But, that's the biggest difference, is the skill level, guys being able to make those little plays in the USHL a little bit more than the NAHL. But, both the leagues, the guys play tough every night and it challenges you every night. So, they're both good leagues.
McKeen's: What were the biggest adjustments you faced coming out of midgets into the North American League?
Merrill: I think being so young and still developing my body and trying to get stronger. Over at the USNTDP, it's real rigorous, the strength and conditioning schedule, when you first get there. It was tough just to balance school and hockey and getting stronger, and you're just tired and having to play games. So, it was good, but it was tough at first.
McKeen's: Yeah. Gaining large quantities of weight in-season is always, especially on a junior schedule, difficult.
McKeen's: It sets you up for the summer, really, and injury prevention.
Merrill: Yeah, definitely.
McKeen's: With last season, you played up with the Under-18 team for a fair amount. So, tell me about the circumstances behind your recall, so to speak, with the Under-18 team for those 19 games, when they utilized you, and what it was like.
Merrill: It was a great experience. I was really honored to be able to play up last year, and was fortunate enough to win a gold medal at the Under-18's there in Fargo. The experience was unbelievable, and I think it helped a lot. We a had bunch, like, five of our guys from my age group were up on that team last year, so we're hoping to bring that experience we had last year back with the team this year and hopefully win another one.
McKeen's: When did you learn last year that you'd been named to the World Under-18 Championship team, who told you, and what was your reaction?
Merrill: I was on pins and needles for a while there because I was up for, like you said, a bunch of games before the Under-18 Championships. They were making us really fight for a spot there, so they weren't telling us anything for sure until (pauses), I didn't know until the day the roster came out. I actually found out without them even saying anything, I just saw the roster online or something and saw that I was on it. Then I came to the rink and they said, "Well, yeah, we're going to take you with us and stuff." I was just real excited, because leading up to that (pauses)?, I mean, you kind of had an idea, but you didn't know for sure, and just knowing for sure really meant a lot. It was a great honor.
McKeen's: Takes a little bit of weight off the shoulders.
Merrill: Oh, that's for sure.
McKeen's: With this season, 2009-10, what were your expectations heading into this season and how would you say 2009-10's gone for you?
Merrill: As a team, I think the expectations were that we'd do really well, because we won the regular season in the NAHL and we were a real good team last year. Then, we lost our coach (John Hynes, who became assistant head coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL) over the summer. Coming into the year, we were still expected to do big things, bigger than what I think we've done now. As a team, I think we would have hoped to have won more games, or maybe have won a couple big college games, and definitely not have lost as much in the USHL. We've done okay, but I think we could have done better.
McKeen's: Then, for you personally, how do you feel the season has gone?
Merrill: Ah, pretty well. I'm producing a little bit more points this year than last year, that's for sure. I think I only had over five points all of last year. So, offensively, I'm doing a lot better. So, I'm happy with the year.
McKeen's: Earlier this season, you were selected to the preliminary roster for the World Junior Championships, which as a U-18 is pretty impressive. So, what was your reaction to being named to that after not skating at the summer camp, and none of you did except for Jack Campbell, and how did you feel you did at the camp in December?
Merrill: It was a big shock for me, because I wasn't even aware that the pre-camp was taking place and that there was a still shot for me to maybe make that team after the summer. Because, in the past, it's always been that they picked the team out of the summer camp. It was where if you weren't at the summer camp, usually you didn't make the team. So, it kind of just came as a shock to me that I was being invited. Then, went up there, and I thought I played well, but they went with an older team and a lot more experience, and I think they made the right choices, because they ended up winning.
McKeen's: That's right. You can't argue too much with a winner. Then, even John Moore was cut from that team.
Merrill: Yeah. That was a big shock.
McKeen's: During your time with the Development Program, what are the areas of your game that have improved the most and how?
Merrill: I think, definitely, my strength. I came in as a real skinny kid. Now, I think I'm fairly strong and have put on a lot of weight. I think that's helped out my game a lot, and just being on the ice every day and just learning the little things, just positioning wise and seeing yourself on video and things like that-never had it before I went there. So, just little things like that really help a lot.
McKeen's: With the size, what height and weight are you cruising at these days?
Merrill: About 6-3, and anywhere between 200 and 205. So, right around there.
McKeen's: That means they're not inflating your numbers on the line charts for us. With the video, tell me more about that. How often do they go over video with you guys and what are some of those small details you've been able to use the video to improve your game?
Merrill: We do video a tremendous amount. Like, after every game, the coaches break down the video and come to us with clips that they think can help us win the next night or we can build on as a team - things we did well and things we can work on. As far as how it's helped me, just those little plays that you wouldn't even think when you're out there, because it's happening so fast. You don't even see the guy sometimes going that certain way, and you see yourself on video, you're like, "Wow, maybe next time I'll look there, and you end up looking there, and it works out."
McKeen's: Video's always helpful. I wasn't nearly as good of a player as you, but I remember when I used to get video that it was great, because I could relate what I was looking at on the screen to what I perceived at the time and you kind of get a sense of the time and space that you really had, and then compare it to what you thought you had.
Merrill: Right. Yeah.
McKeen's: On the track of improvements, what are the areas of your game that you feel you need to improve the most to take your game to the next level moving forward?
Merrill: Keep getting stronger and faster and working in the off-season and trying to get that extra edge any way I can, maybe work on my shot a little bit, get a little more offensive. But, that's about it that I can think of now. Every aspect of the game you can always work on.
McKeen's: On the flipside of that, what would you say are the strengths of your game and the style that you play?
Merrill: I think the strengths of my game are really just thinking the game and puck poise - I try to always just be one step ahead of everyone else - and good positioning. I try to model my entire game after Nick Lidstrom. The way he plays the game is unbelievable. He takes over games, and he's not even the biggest, strongest, or fastest guy. He just takes over with his mind, basically.
McKeen's: As far as I know, you're still committed to Michigan. So, at what point in your career did schools start contacting you, who did it come down to in the end, and what made you decide on becoming a Wolverine?
Merrill: I really spoke to no other schools besides Michigan. I knew that was where I wanted to go from the beginning. So, it was easy for me in the recruiting process. I knew that's where I've always wanted to go. So, when it started to get into where I wanted to go, it was easy. I just said right away, "I'm in." "If you want me, I'm in."
McKeen's: At what point did you signal your intentions to Michigan?
Merrill: I committed to them, verbally, freshman? I don't even remember. Three years ago? When I was fourteen?
McKeen's: I remember reading about that, and that sounds about right, and it looks like it's going to turn out. I remember back in the day when Ryan Turek committed when he was 15 to Michigan State. That was part of that early wave of all those kids committing so early. It hasn't turned out for everybody, but most of those guys didn't go to the Development Program like you. Changing topics, your teammate Jack Campbell made some waves when he decided to de-commit from Michigan and go the major junior route. Some top USHL defensemen like John Carlson and John Moore have made that decision also, and there's a chance an NHL team might try pushing this with you. So, would you at all consider the major junior route and why or why not?
Merrill: I don't think so. Like, in those guys' cases, with Jack - I don't know the other two as well as I know Jack - but in Jack's case it's the right move for him and his family. I think he made the right decision. For me, I think it's better for me to go to school, and that's just what I've always wanted to do. I'm 100 percent committed there. I don't want to say, "No way!" to the OHL, because it's a great league, but I don't see myself ever playing there, and I don't want to rag on the league, either, because it is the top junior league in North America. I'm 100 percent committed to college, without a doubt.
McKeen's: Which isn't surprising to hear you say, since you mentioned it was Michigan all along, 100 percent, end of story. What do you see as the pluses of going the college route versus the pluses of going the major junior route?
Merrill: I think it's the best of both worlds, in my opinion. I think a lot of guys make the argument that the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) is the most similar to the NHL in style of play, and you play a lot of games, and things like that, but you've got to look at it from my perspective. I'm 18 years old. If I went and played in the CHL, there's 15 and 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, in the league. There's top-end 18 and 19-year-old guys, too, but if you go to college, everyone's older than you. I'm a freshman in a bigger, stronger, faster game, and you get up for every game, because you only play 35, 40 games, or whatever it is. Every game is a big game. Whereas in the CHL, you're playing in Sudbury on a Tuesday night, and how do you get up for that, you know?
McKeen's: (Laughs) That's a good point on the 15 and 16-year-olds. The players I've talked to in the past - I've thought about that a little bit myself - but no player has ever brought that up before. Going back to the beginning of your hockey career, when did you first start playing and how did you get that start?
Merrill: I started playing when I was about six, I think. It was kind of a sport that my dad liked to watch. We lived up in the Flint, Michigan, area, and they had a minor pro team, the Flint Generals, and we'd always go and my dad loved watching them play - me and my brother would go watch. Then one day it was just kind of, "Hey, let's try it out." So, we skated and then one thing led to another and we were playing.
McKeen's: It'll be interesting to see how much longer Flint has the Generals.
Merrill: Yeah. I know.
McKeen's: I know you played for Little Caesar's for some years, but I don't know the entirety of your youth career. So, for what organizations did you skate for through the years and when did you start playing up?
Merrill: I always played up. I first started playing up because it was easier on my dad to take me and my brother to the same practice, so I played up with my brother. He's two years older than me. So, at first, I would play up with him, and then I couldn't play two years up, so I went down and just played one year up. I played for the Flint Ice Miners at first, for the first couple years, then I played for Belle Tire AA, and then I was with Caesar's the rest of the way.
McKeen's: At what age level did you start playing for Caesar's?
Merrill: Ummm, I think pee wee minor, then all the way through.
McKeen's: How much does playing for Little Caesar's for a season cost?
Merrill: I have no idea.
McKeen's: Might be better not to know - not as much as it costs to play out in California, though.
Merrill: Yeah, I don't think so.
McKeen's: This is your draft year, and in the midterm rankings, Central Scouting had you 20th amongst North American skaters, which would put you late first round or early second round, going by their midterm rankings at least. So, what's your reaction to being ranked in that area?
Merrill: Obviously it's amazing to even talk about being drafted in the NHL at all. I can't even fathom when I was younger even getting a shot at the NHL, let alone getting drafted. As far as being ranked 20th, you always want to be the best. So, I'm not satisfied there. I'm always trying to move up. But like I said, it's a great honor to be even rated, let alone that high.
McKeen's: A prospect of your caliber usually has some sort of representation. So, if I might ask, do you have a family advisor and, if so, who?
Merrill: Yeah, yeah. I talk with Alex Schall.
McKeen's: How often does he keep in contact with you and what's he been saying lately?
Merrill: I talk to him every now and then. Not every day, or even every week, but maybe a couple times a month. Maybe after a big tournament or a big game, he'll give me a call and say, "Hey."
McKeen's: Similarly, how often does Michigan - and this may be a lot different than most kids since you're both in Ann Arbor - how often do they stay in contact with you and what have they been saying?
Merrill: Not much, really. I think the last time I went over there was February, sat down at a meeting with them. I'm real happy to go there and they're happy for me to come in next year. So, just hoping for good things next year.
McKeen's: I think it's safe to say that you'll be invited to the NHL Combine. Is there a point, assuming that's true, where you start training specifically for that and what have you heard about it and what are your expectations?
Merrill: I don't think I'm going to specifically train for that. I think the training I've done over the past two years at USA has prepared me above and beyond any training that I could start, or anyone could start right now, to get ready for it. I just feel like through the training there, I've become really strong in all aspects. So, I'm pretty confident with how far my strength has come. Like, I'm not one of the stronger guys, but from where I came from to where I am now, I've made big improvements. As far as what I've heard, I've talked to a lot of the guys from the older team that went last year and they just said it's just awkward standing there with your shirt off in front 50 or however many people are standing there watching you work out. So, once you get over that, it's not a big deal.
McKeen's: I suppose that would be a little different, kind of like being a lab rat. For the last question, to round things out, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why - I think I know one of these - and some players today who you feel you're similar to or would like to equate to?
Merrill: My favorite player my whole life has been Nick Lidstrom. Growing up watching the Wings play and the way he plays, he inspires me to play the way that I play. Pretty much him and any other defenseman that plays a similar role - maybe a Tomas Kaberle - anyone that logs a lot of minutes like that. I just love watching defensemen that keep it simple and log the big minutes.