Merrill starts rookie season on a roll
At least for the moment, Jon Merrill is on the same page as his coaches.
The rookie defenseman is still a rookie, so time will tell if he will be able to play with the consistency Albany Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky will want to see, but it’s hard to argue with the three assists he put up in the team’s season-opener in Hartford, Conn., on Sunday.
The Devils lost that game, 4-3, but Kowalsky was pleased with the play of the University of Michigan product.
“I thought he was maybe the best player on the ice for both teams,” Kowalsky said. “For him, it’s going to be [a matter of] getting used to the grind and the schedule, once we get going. He’s very calm with that puck. If he continues to play, we’re going to let him play on both sides of it, meaning he’s going to be a big part of the power play. But we’ve talked about activating our D a little more in the rush, too, to help create offense. Him and [Eric] Gelinas are two guys we’re certainly going to allow to do that, but they’ve got to be responsible and pick their spots. I think Jon’s got a really natural sense for that.”
Just 51 seconds into that game, Merrill set up the newest Devil to become the first Devil to book a goal on the season. He collected a pass from left wing Joe Whitney at the point and fired goalward for Scott Timmins, who scored on the deflection. Timmins had just come over to the organization in a Sept. 28 trade.
“He’s shooting that puck for the tip,” Kowalsky said of Merrill. “He’s not shooting it to score. That’s something we try to teach, but it’s not easy to do. So there’s no question he’s a guy who’s going to be part of it, five-on-five, but certainly a major part of the power play.”
The three-point game was nice, but Merrill said he doesn’t judge his play on how many points he turns in.
“I don’t think it’s anything statistical, for myself, that dictates whether or not I feel like I played a good game or not,” he said. “I think it’s more of making the right plays, helping the team, in whatever way that may be. You can finish a game with no points and minus-two, but still be extremely effective for your team and help them win. It’s really about helping the team win.”
Like Gelinas, he can be an offensive-minded defenseman, so Merrill is comfortable with the idea of activating the D corps and sending them on the rush.
“It’s great. All our D have the opportunity to get up in the rush as much as we can,” he said. “I think that’s something that helps out the team. It’s a five-man unit when you’re out on the ice. Everyone can interchange and be a in role, offensively. To have a coaching staff that is willing to let their defensemen get up in the rush and try to create some offense is really good.”
Among the seven defensemen on the roster, three are rookies, though two played a combined 16 games on ATO contracts late last season. That shouldn’t stunt the team’s development at the position, though, Merrill said.
“I don’t think age is really a factor. I think every team tries to play the same way, and that’s defense-first,” he said. “When you have an opportunity to jump in the play, that’s what we’re going to do. If we take care of our own end, be responsible defensively and make good first passes, we’re going to be just fine.”
WIN SOME, LOSE SOME
The Devils are stinging a bit from the loss of Alexander Urbom, whom New Jersey tried to slide to Albany on waivers on Oct. 3, only to have him claimed by the Washington Capitals.
Kowalsky admitted, though it’s a good opportunity for Urbom, who is still with Washington (has not been reassigned to Hershey), it stings a little bit to lose him.
“It does, but it’s bittersweet for us,” he said. “We talked to him to congratulate him and wish him the best, and he felt the same way. He’s been part of this and spent time with us, especially us. He’s spent most of his time down here. We’d like to think his value as a player, moving forward to Washington ... it’s no different than a guy who gets called up and stays up. You’re happy for him, but would we have liked to see him here? No question. And I think, organizationally, it stings a little bit, as well.”
Rod Pelley is serving as Albany’s captain this season, and you can read more about that in Friday’s sports section.
Ninth-year centerman Tim Sestito will be an assistant captain, and the other “A” will be worn by both Chris McKelvie and Mike Sislo.
McKelvie, a fourth-year forward, will wear the “A” on the road, while Sislo, a third-year right wing, will wear it at home.
“Some of those guys are a little younger, Sestito and Pelley being the two veterans in there,” Kowalsky said. “Dan Kelly and Darcy Zajac were considered in that group because of their experience and how long they’ve been here and the way they play. But Mike Sislo and McKelvie were guys we felt were going to share that second A early on in the season. It wasn’t about us not making a decision. With that leadership comes a little bit of responsibility. McKelvie, similar to Pelley, is a consumate professional. As is Sislo, but Sislo, we’re looking for him to take another step, which is part of the responsibility of the leadership. We don’t want him to change, but we want to put a little more on him, and that was part of the process for us.”
With home games Saturday (5:05 p.m. vs. Utica Comets) and Monday (2 p.m. vs. Adirondack Phantoms), both goalies — Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood — will play one game.
Kinkaid, a Union College product, played Sunday in Hartford, stopping 18 of 22 shots. If he plays Saturday, he will likely face another Union alum, Jeremy Welsh, who was traded by Carolina to Vancouver and assigned to Utica on Sept. 29.
BE TOUGH TO PLAY AT HOME
This is a message that was lost on the Devils last season. They were 14-16-0-8 in home games, 28th best of the 30 teams in the league. The previous season, they were 18-13-4-3, 20th in the league.
“We’ve discussed it, and we’re going to continue to reinforce it,” Kowalsky said. “Two years ago, I really liked what we did at home. Last year, we got away from it. We’re going to stay on these guys with the size of our D and our speed. We’ve got some bigger forwards up front, this year, as well. The ones that are up front should intimidate with their speed and skill. I think it’s part of our start, here, and we want to make this building tougher to play in than last year, for sure.”
There are no injuries to report, but two Devils — Joe Whitney and Mike Hoeffel — sat out Thursday morning’s practice with the flu.
“Other than the darn flu bug going through on a daily basis, we’re good,” Kowalsky said. “We’ve lost about a guy a day. This is the first day we’ve gotten hit with two, knock on wood, because I’ve seen this where four guys [get sick]. But since training camp, we’re up to about seven guys. It knocks them out for the day, then they’re back. Hopefully, this is the end of it.”
Here are the forward line combinations from Thursday’s practice (keep in mind, Whitney and Hoeffel were out, but both will likely be available Saturday):
Stefan Matteau-Rod Pelley-Mike Sislo; Kelly Zajac-Scott Timmins-Reid Boucher; Chris McKelvie-Darcy Zajac-Cam Janssen; Tim Sestito-David Wohlberg-Harri Pesonen.