Defenseman Jon Merrill decided to move on from the University of Michigan after spending three seasons there. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Very few prospects glide to the NHL without some sort of adversity and it’s dealing with those pitfalls that turn boys into pros. Both Jon Merrill and Danny Kristo went to college, where book learning went hand in hand with lessons in life.
Merrill, who left the University of Michigan after his junior year in 2012-13, has already played a dozen pro games with the American League’s Albany Devils, registering an impressive eight points in that span. Selected 38th overall by New Jersey in 2010, the 6-foot-3 puck-moving defenseman prides himself on being a reliable player on the ice, but during his sophomore season in Ann Arbor, personal matters involving his maturity found Merrill suspended for 12 games for violating unspecified team rules. Legendary coach Red Berenson easily could have cut bait with the young talent, but Merrill earned back the Michigan guru’s trust and played another season, albeit one cut short by a cracked vertebrae sustained on a hit from behind.
“It meant a lot for someone of his stature to stick his neck out for me,” Merrill said. “It got me on the right track and if someone like that believes in you, how can you not believe in yourself? It was a turning point in my career and a huge wake-up call to realize it was time to grow up, make some sacrifices and make some changes in order to make my dreams come true of playing in the NHL.”
With camp on the horizon and the Devils thin on the back end, Merrill’s NHL dream could come true very soon.
“They definitely said to come into camp with the expectations of playing my game,” he said. “If I play well, there’s an opportunity.”
Across the river in New York, Kristo will be looking to make a good first impression at Rangers camp. Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin will likely start the year on the shelf due to off-season surgeries, meaning the right winger from the University of North Dakota may earn some time with the big club right away.
But on a cold Grand Forks night in early 2011, Kristo made a poor decision that almost cost him his livelihood, if not some extremities. Walking outside in minus-40 fahrenheit weather, he lost his shoe in a snowbank and after trying in vain to dislodge it, walked the rest of the way home without it. Kristo got frostbite on one hand and one foot and initially, doctors feared they would have to amputate.
“It makes you put things in perspective,” Kristo said. “A little bit scary, but I came out fine. I had good teammates and a good coaching staff plus my family to help me through that.”
Originally drafted 56th overall by Montreal in 2008, Kristo was dealt to the Rangers in July for fellow prospect Christian Thomas. Kristo believes New York was interested thanks to his showing at the World Championship, where he played in all 10 games for Team USA, winning a surprise bronze medal in the process.
The second annual USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game will take place in Pittsburgh on Sept. 26 and the rosters were just announced. A lot of shade was thrown on the event last year in Buffalo because a good chunk of participants had already been passed over in the NHL draft, but this year’s incarnation is almost entirely first-time eligible. Some of the more intriguing names on the roster include Sonny Milano from the U.S. NTDP, Nick Schmaltz from the United States League’s Green Bay Gamblers and Alex Nedeljkovic, goaltender for the Ontario League’s Plymouth Whalers. As a 17-year-old, Nedeljkovic took over the crease from veteran and Carolina prospect Matt Mahalak, going 19-2 in the regular season and guiding the Whalers to the conference final before falling to eventual OHL champs London.
“His teammates wanted him to play,” said Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci. “He’s a calm goalie, makes it look easy out there. If you can play, I’ll play you no matter how old you are.”