After last season’s disappointing results, Steve Yzerman and the Wings’ brass needed to have a busy off-season. A flurry of signings and releases has meant the Detroit Red Wings’ roster is going to have a different look this upcoming season. Every hockey player has a past, present and, most importantly for Wings’ fans, future. Although the future is impossible to predict, markers in a player’s past can indicate a projected path. Let’s examine some of those clues.
Hockey may just be a sport but, at the end of the day, the NHL is business, meaning drafts and trades generally dictate where a player goes, not the player. Well, the chance arose for this lucky Michigan native to play for his boyhood team and Yzerman gladly signed him to a one-year $925,000 contract. Jon Merrill couldn’t contain his excitement as he recounted playing youth hockey for the Little Caesars and being one of the flag bearers who rushed onto the ice during the playoffs. Nostalgia aside, Merrill is a welcomed addition to the Wings’ blue line. The 7-year veteran spent four seasons with the Devils before joining the Vegas Golden Knights during the 2017 expansion draft. Don’t expect Merrill to be lighting the lamp at Little Caesars Arena every night, but expect him to be a calm, steady force on a backend that saw its fair share of defensive mistakes last season. Merrill maintained a respectable +/- his three seasons in Las Vegas, averaging +10 over the course of 140 games played. The Wings will be hoping Merrill seizes his opportunity to play meaningful minutes and help rebuild his hometown club. Considering the back-to-back healthy scratches in last season’s playoffs, Merrill will be wanting the same.
This season, the Red Wings’ depth chart will look drastically different, particularly on the back end. It is likely that the Michigan native will be paired with another new addition, Troy Stetcher. The team’s shortage of right-shot defenceman means fans will rarely see Filip Hronek with Stecher and suggests that Merrill and Stecher may be the most likely number-two pairing on opening day. However, Wings’ fans should taper expectations because both defencemen are leaving playoff teams to join one that is rebuilding. This means more ice-time on both 5-on-5 and special teams, increased responsibility on- and off- the-ice and, frankly more opportunities to make mistakes, relative to their previous roles. Merrill was consistently a bottom-pair defenceman, often designated the 7th in Vegas, while Stetcher only made the jump to top-pairing in last year’s playoffs in a relatively small sample size. Regardless, the Wings not only got younger on their blue line, but they also got more talented. With this, the combo of Merrill and Stecher could be a match made in heaven. One stay-at-home defenceman paired with one looking to jump into the play will be a treat for fans to watch and a menace to the opposition. Yzerman has already mentioned he expects Merrill to be a key part of their power-killing unit and, at 6’3” and 195 lbs., Greiss and Bernier will appreciate the help clearing forwards out of their sightlines.
The Wings and Merrill would love to keep this relationship going for years. Merrill’s excitement to be playing for his boyhood club has been contagious and the Wings desperately need a strong pillar in the back to support their young-forward core. Win-Win? Depends. The 1-year deal often signifies an extended tryout, where you need to perform to earn the extension, and Yzerman didn’t come to Detroit for feel-good stories. He came to win. So, if Merrill wants to be in Michigan, he’s going to have to prove to be an asset this season. The 2020-21 Wings are going to be an exciting team because they brought in numerous key signings and several players with real ‘boom-or-bust’ potential. Blashill will be expected to position his new talent in the best possible situation to succeed. Merrill is extremely talented and fought for ice-time on one of the best teams in the NHL during his time in Vegas. But now he’s home, where ice-time and the contract extension are there for the taking. While none of us can predict the future, I think we can all cheer for this Michigan-bred man who finally landed the opportunity to play for his boyhood club.