By Steve Lichtenstein
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It turns out the Devils had nothing to fear from the expansion draft after all.
The Vegas Golden Knights took underachieving defenseman Jon Merrill off New Jersey’s hands on Wednesday night.
Even better, Devils general manager Ray Shero didn’t need to bribe the Knights like 10 other NHL clubs who had more players they wished to protect than the rules allowed.
That wasn’t the case in talent-deficient New Jersey, where finding eight eligible skaters worthy of protection was somewhat challenging after its core four forwards of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique plus defensemen Andy Greene and Damon Severson.
Defenseman John Moore, as I expected, made the final list, but Ben Lovejoy didn’t, presumably because Shero deduced that the Golden Knights would go after a younger and cheaper exposed player than the 33-year-old defenseman, who has two more seasons on his contract at an AAV of $2.667 million.
That turned out to be Merrill, whose fate was sealed just hours prior to the June 17 protection list submission time when Shero dealt a second- and a fourth-rounder to San Jose to obtain defenseman Mirco Mueller plus a fifth-round pick.
Since Mueller was obviously going to be protected in the expansion draft, the timing of the trade spoke volumes about Merrill’s value to the organization. If keeping him was a priority, then Shero would have waited until after the expansion draft to acquire Mueller. Greasing Vegas’ wheel with another draft pick just to keep Merrill would have been inexplicable.
As I’ve often mentioned, Merrill was not my favorite. The Devils saw a defenseman with good size (6-foot-3) and adequate skating ability when they selected Merrill in the second round (No. 38 overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
He just never developed. Injuries played a role, but Merrill’s failures were primarily performance-related.
Merrill had a few stretches of strong play during his four seasons in New Jersey, including last January when he recorded three of his six points and only goal of the campaign. The plus-4 mark was his only plus month of the season.
Mostly, I will remember Merrill’s tenure by gaffes, such as the time he tripped over his own blue line with the puck on his stick to gift a breakaway goal to Evgeni Malkin in a game against Pittsburgh two seasons ago.
Puck management, positioning, net-front presence … you name the defensive trait, Merrill was deficient in it.
There are those who believe the Devils gave up on Merrill too soon. Defensemen take longer to bloom, they say. Merrill turned age 25 in February. He’s had plenty of chances to make the case that he belonged at the NHL level.
After perusing the Golden Knights’ expansion draft selections, I’m not sure Merrill could break into their top seven. Barring subsequent trades, of course, which Vegas is rumored to be pursuing after the freeze was lifted Thursday morning.
Mueller, 22, will be the new Merrill in New Jersey.
Chosen with the 18th pick in the first round in 2013, he has played only 54 NHL games in his three-year professional career.
Mueller spent almost all of his time last season playing for San Jose’s AHL affiliate, where the reviews weren’t exactly glowing. However, Mueller possesses some of the same attributes (6-foot-3 with good mobility) that made Merrill so enticing. There was even some chatter about how Mueller was stifled under the regime of Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, who is known for his impatience with young defensemen (see: Larsson, Adam).
Still, it is puzzling why Shero yielded a second-rounder (not New Jersey’s own at 36, but the 49th overall selection via Boston, thanks to the Marc Savard long-term injury stash) for a player so clearly on the outs in San Jose.
I’m pretty sure the trade had nothing to do with Shero looking to pair a fellow Swiss natives with Nico Hischier, who is in a neck-and-neck battle with Nolan Patrick for the honor of being selected with the Devils’ No. 1 overall pick in Friday’s Entry Draft.
The Devils are in desperate need of rebuilding their back line, and both Hischier and Patrick are centers. The free agent defenseman class, outside of Kevin Shattenkirk, for whom I would doubt that Shero will enter into a bidding war, is weak. Ergo, Shero took a risk.
Sometimes it pays off, like following one of Shero’s first moves after he took over in New Jersey two offseasons ago. He traded a two and a three for Palmieri, a bottom-six forward in Anaheim who responded with 53 goals in the next two seasons.
Shero should continue to dip into his asset drawer filled with draft picks and cap space because he still has a lot of deadwood (coaches call them “passengers”) to turn over on New Jersey’s roster. It’s too bad Vegas couldn’t take more of them.
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