Jon Merrill spent the first four years of his NHL career with the New Jersey Devils amassing 36 points over 216 games while earning a reputation as a sound, stay-at-home defenseman. But when the Devils left Merrill exposed in the recent expansion draft, the Vegas Golden Knights leapt at the chance to make the 6’3’’, 205-pound blueliner a cornerstone piece in its first season of professional hockey.
Despite the culture shock, Merrill has remained on the east coast this summer, fine-tuning his game with legendary skills and skating instructor John Morea.
“I have a young family. I have two babies and my girlfriend so it’s tough moving around everywhere with the family,” Merrill said. “We have our place through the summer here in Jersey and not knowing or expecting being picked up in the expansion draft, we planned on staying here throughout the summer anyway. When I got picked it really didn’t change any of those plans. So I’m still here training and skating.”
Merrill is thrilled to begin the next chapter in his NHL career with Las Vegas and staying local and working with Morea will prepare the 25-year old Oklahoma City native for what should be an expanded role with the Golden Knights in their first season in the league.
“I’m excited. It’s a great opportunity for me and my career and I’m very excited about this opportunity,” Merrill said. “It’s sad to say goodbye to the Devils. They were so good to me for four years. A lot of friends I’ve made around here so that’s going to be tough to say goodbye. It’s a new beginning and I’m really excited about it.”
To prepare for his new role with the expansion Golden Knights, Merrill is working closely with Morea and his staff including coach Jason DesRochers to constantly improve his game. The former University of Michigan defenseman likes the individual attention he receives from the prestigious, word-of-mouth, invitation-only training camp specifically designed for players looking to make the jump to Division-I or professional hockey.
“It’s just a great environment. John is a great guy. Everyone that I’ve met that skates out of here is incredibly inviting and it’s fun to be around them,” Merrill said. “I think it’s a combination of a lot of good, new, exciting skill developments with a good atmosphere that breeds positive energy. A lot of skill stuff I have never done before. It exposes a lot of parts of my game that needed improvement for a long time. Out here skating with Johnny is a humbling thing for me. Some of the drills I can’t do but I’m getting better and developing parts of my game that have been kind of pushed under the rug for years in the past and so it’s a great opportunity to get out here and develop my skills.”
Merrill isn’t the only one raving about the personal, on-ice training he’s received from Morea and his staff. Tim Clifton (San Jose Sharks), Connor Clifton (Arizona Coyotes), Ryan Walker (Union College), Alec Marsh and Kevin Kerr (Penn State), Anthony Firriolo and Zach Berzolla (Colorado College), Zach Frisk (NH Avalanche) and Tyler DesRochers (NJ Colonials) are also regulars at the summer-long training camp.
“Personally, my edgework and my footwork have gotten 100 percent better from last summer,” Walker said. “Just working with Johnny for a month I already feel like a better hockey player. The biggest takeaway is probably my speed and ability to move well on both feet. Personally that’s what I’ve struggled with and this camp helps me with that a lot.”
“Just the knowledge he has,” Firriolo said. “His footwork and edgework really helps improve our game a lot. That’s the biggest part that most coaches don’t really help you work on.”
Morea, who hails from Old Bridge, NJ, has built a reputation as an NHL skills and skating instructor. After six seasons spanning the EJHL, MJAHL, OHL, EPHL and BCHL, including stints in the U.S., Russia and Canada, Morea turned heads in training camp for the Chicago Blackhawks. There he developed a bond with skating instructor Paul Vincent, whom he followed, joining his staff as an assistant with the Florida Panthers. With years of experience under his belt working with players like Erik Gudbrason, Ryan Whitney, Lee Stempniak, Chris Kreider and Keith Yandle, Morea has now turned his attention toward helping others in the Garden State.
“We started last year with a few local guys,” Morea said. “This season we picked it back up with guys staying in Jersey locally to train. It was kind of word-of-mouth and then the college kids would tell their buddies about it and it really picked up.”
Morea says it is very important to employ a rigorous, year-round training regimen, especially for players looking to take the next step at the collegiate or pro level.
“Oh, it’s very important. This is what these guys use in game situations,” Morea said. “All the edge control and the body control — it comes into play and they feel it during the season, so I think for any level it’s really important and they understand that too.”
“I think it helps guys improve areas of the game that we aren’t comfortable with,” Berzolla added. “It makes you come out of your comfort zone a little bit. I think it’s pretty big for guys to learn and get better at hockey. I think it develops a lot of players, getting skills to a higher level to help us get to the next level.”
Special to Hockey Clan
John Christian Hageny
New Jersey Devils One Jersey Grassroots Team Writer
Interviews: Francesca Papandrea
Photos: Dave Rubel
Video: Ryan Collins
Main Image: Jon Merrill’s career is growing leaps and bounds. After four seasons in New Jersey, Merrill is heading west to the Vegas Golden Knights. (Dave Rubel/NJ Sports Media)