After the Minnesota Wild signed Dmitry Kulikov and Alex Goligoski to short-term deals, their blue line was almost complete — all that was needed was one final spot for someone to take and the easiest option was an internal one.
Especially after young defenseman Brennan Menell was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the competition remaining was essentially rookie Calen Addison standing alone with other AHL depth defensemen. But when Wild GM Bill Guerin told the media that he won’t just hand their young prospects spots in the lineup, he clearly meant it and signed established defensive player Jon Merrill to a one-year deal.
After starting his career with the New Jersey Devils, Merrill was swiped up by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, where he rejuvenated his career as one of the Golden Misfits and was a massive, integral part for their overperformance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and multiple playoff runs after that sensational first year. He was then signed by the Detroit Red Wings for a single year, traded to the Montreal Canadiens, and that’s where his career arc leaves us now, with the Wild for a significant season that we still don’t even know who’s going to be in the lineup for certain.
By signing Merrill as the sixth defenseman, Guerin is really nailing down the point of no available spots. Even if the veteran defender has a couple slip-ups, it’s hard to really see him being scratched for a dynamic-yet-raw talent like Addison.
Among the 186 defensemen that have played at least 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 over the last three NHL seasons, Merrill Owns the ninth-best shots-against rate and the fourth-best expected-goals-against rate. He has been a defensive monster and prevents both quality and quantity in his own zone. And while his offensive numbers have seen a dip, totaling sub-50 percent in both shot rate and expected goals rate last season with Detroit and Montreal — the explanation can be found just a couple words before these ones, it was Detroit and Montreal. One team was purposefully crap and the other plays a one-way defensive system that banks on some counterattacking goals, and Merrill certainly wasn’t a part of the rush up the ice then.
Considering that his last two seasons in Vegas earned him an on-ice expected goals share of 57.17 percent (2019-20) and 58.27 percent (2018-19) and both placed him in the top-six among all defenders that played over 500 minutes at 5-on-5, he has had previous success being there at both ends of the ice and supporting his forwards. For a team like Minnesota, that should spell out to be a seamless transition. A team that is built upon the “we don’t care if you shoot low-danger shots, don’t get anywhere near our fucking goalie” motif, keeps any high-danger chances limited and can easily spring a counterattack that leads to a goal. It’s a simple formula that has worked in the regular season and Merrill can play half of that role extremely well. He might end up hurting some offense, but it’s Minnesota Hockey — defense is a must.
Throughout his time in Vegas, all of his on-ice defensive shot charts, looked like this.
And while numbers certainly don’t play on the ice, he’s been enough of a steady defender to play on some very good teams, so why shouldn’t the Wild be his next one? It’s tough to say no to Merrill and his defense, but keeping a player that is no doubt on a serious projection to be in the Wild’s top-four for some time in Calen Addison is going to be so difficult.
The one benefit (and possible solution) for all of this is that Addison is still exempt from waivers next season. He can bounce in between Iowa and Minnesota as many times as he likes without some other team getting a hold of him. So maybe if the offense is really sucking and you can’t see any other solution, give the talented blueliner some minutes and let Merrill sit upstairs, and if that doesn’t work, the Wild can send him back down to the AHL.
I know “ripening” prospects is a delicate balance, but Addison really put on a massive display in the AHL last season on offense, putting up 22 points in 31 games during his first professional hockey season. And while the roster will be better in Iowa due to the lack of taxi squad — maybe that means more points — letting another year of his precious entry-level contract expire without him flexing his muscles in the NHL might be a little bit of a waste.
Nothing will be cemented until the end of training camp, but with six solid NHL defensemen (accent on the defense) it’s going to be difficult to have head coach Dean Evason waiver from his expectation of having a very good team in their own zone. We’ll see how the blue line shapes up, but right now I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s Kulikov on the left and Merrill on the right for the bottom pairing, and leaving Addison trying to hone in his talents in the AHL.
Data via Evolving-Hockey.