AUDIO AND VIDEO: Story includes a video interview with Michael Mersch and an audio interview with Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — For many, many years, the Los Angeles Kings were grossly deficient in the areas of drafting and developing young players. Of course, they were so bad at drafting players that their dreadful player development usually didn’t matter.
But all that has changed since President/General Manager Dean Lombardi joined the club in April 2006. He quickly made drafting and development one of the top priorities of the franchise. That focus has paid off in spades, and now, the Kings are now one of the top teams in the National Hockey League when it comes to drafting and developing their young prospects.
Evidence of that can be seen on the 2013-14 roster, which includes the likes of Drew Doughty, Trevor Lewis, Alec Martinez, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli and Slava Voynov, among others, all of whom are homegrown players—some are late-round draft picks— who are now filling significant roles, and it doesn’t stop there.
Another late-round draft pick who could become an impact player at the NHL level is 21-year-old left wing Michael Mersch, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
In his senior season at the University of Wisconsin, the 6-2, 210-pound native of Park Ridge, Illinois scored 22 goals and added 13 assists for 35 points with 18 penalty minutes. At the end of Wisconsin’s season, Mersch was called up to finish the year with the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
“[Playing for the Monarchs] was a good experience,” said Mersch. “The guys were pretty welcoming and they had a good team. I was fortunate to be able to come in and play with them.”
Like most players making the transition from college or major junior hockey to the professional level, Mersch was quickly made aware of the differences.
“It’s definitely different from college,” he said. “I learned a lot of new things. The guys gave some pointers there and the coaches did, as well. It was a really good experience.”
“I kind of figured, jumping a level, whether it’s from midget to juniors, or from juniors to the pro level, there’s always guys who are bigger, faster and stronger,” he added. “I was able to see that, get into some games, and see what it’s like before this season.”
Mersch also took note of the off-ice differences.
“Just the way you dress, the way you act, as a pro, in the locker room, taking care of things around the rink, being on time, or a little bit earlier,” he observed. “Little details like that really mean a lot at the pro level.”
Apparently, Mersch handled the move up to the AHL level well, despite playing in just seven games at the end of the regular season and four playoff games with the Monarchs.
“[Mersch is a] big body, really good in front of the net, what we call the ‘half court,’ from the blue line down,” said Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, who also serves as the general manager for the Monarchs. “Very effective, scores a lot of goals around that area and has a knack for finding the net.”
“He made a good impression on the coaching staff,” added Blake. “I think they felt he was very reliable. Sometimes, when you bring a kid [up], they’re nervous. [But] he was reliable and moved up the lineup pretty quickly.”
As Blake indicated, Mersch fits the role of a power forward.
“[My game is] hanging around the net, putting away some of the ugly goals, and taking away the goalie’s eyes,” Mersch noted. “Just getting into the dirty areas—contributing like that.”
Back to the differences in the game…Mersch noted that moving up to higher levels exposes weaknesses in one’s game, and he’s no exception.
“Yeah, and that’s all right,” he said. “Everyone’s got some spots in their game that need correction. The learning curve in hockey is tremendous, and it keeps on going, so whatever you can do [to improve]—as I said, I’ve learned some things and I was able to work on them over the summer and sharpen up those [things].”
One of the biggest challenges for Mersch will be to improve his skating.
“My skating needs work,” he said. “That’s going to be a never-ending thing for me. I continually have to work at that. I understand that and I’m attacking it. That’s the main thing [for] me. The game is always faster. You always have to know the next play in front of you, so it’s being aware of that, being a pro and taking care of yourself. All those little things mean a lot.”
Blake is taking a wait-and-see attitude about Mersch’s skating.
“The biggest thing is [that he’s got] to keep up [with] the pace now,” said Blake. “It’s a faster pace than it was in college. You can [look at] reports on different players where they say the skating needs to improve. [But] until you see him with the pace of the players—that’s why I’m interested to see him with the big guys [in training camp] and see what that pace is.”
Mersch will have to adjust to a heavier, more grueling schedule than he was accustomed to in college.
“In college, you play less games, so we’ve got to understand that this year, thirty games in, he’s going to be thinking the season’s almost done,” Blake noted. “This happens every time guys come out of college. I think the reinforcement of being able to compete every day—it starts in the minor leagues. When you get to the NHL, you don’t have the time to take a day off, because if you do, Sutter’s not going to have you in the lineup.”
Another adjustment Mersch must make to his game is improving his defensive play. But Blake does not seem to be too concerned.
“[Mersch’s defensive play is] fine,” said Blake. “There’s always room for improvement. There’s a different system, different things in college. Playing 200 feet is a big thing for [head coach] Darryl Sutter, so when I talk about the “staples’ of being a King, those are the things he had to learn and continue to [learn].”
Perhaps the reason Blake does not seem to be concerned about Mersch’s development is his work ethic and determination.
“The other important thing is his work ethic and the time he’s put in with the development team over the summer,” Blake observed. “He wants the challenge. He knows that his college career is done, and it’s time to move on to be a pro. He’s taking charge of that.”
“[The development team works] on all of our ‘staples:’ wall play in our own zone, net front [presence], different things—all the things we want from a Los Angeles Kings [player],” Blake added. “They work with all of our younger prospects, but [Mersch] really took to it. Some guys get into it. They ask questions, they want to learn more, and he’s one of them.”
Fresh out of college hockey, Mersch is destined to play for the Monarchs or the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, this season. Despite that, he is focused on the big club, noting that young players have been able to crack the Kings lineup in recent years, most recently, Pearson and Toffoli.
“I think everybody’s a little different, their paths are always different,” said Mersch. “Those guys are great players and if that’s what I have to do—obviously, they worked on [their skating]. I’m just trying to focus on myself, but seeing other guys have success and working hard, that’s always a positive thing. But I’m focusing on myself, and how I can help the team better in Manchester and L.A. The L.A. organization puts you in a good spot to develop in those areas.”
“Coming into camp here—it’s my first one,” added Mersch. “I was able to talk to people around the organization about what to expect. That was good. Everybody’s mindset, coming into camp, is about making the L.A. Kings. Obviously, they have a deep roster with a lot of good players up there. Sometimes, it’s difficult, but why not make that your mindset and see what happens?”
Video Interview With Michael Mersch via FrozenRoyaltyNHL on YouTube
Audio Interview With Rob Blake
(2:51; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Frozen Royalty’s Michael Mersch Coverage
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