LOS ANGELES — Don’t look now, folks, but the Los Angeles Kings could have a star power forward in the making down on the farm, and it might not be who you think it is.
“He’s as good as anybody in the American [Hockey] League level, and I don’t know if there’s any better at the National Hockey League level in front of the net,” said assistant general manager Rob Blake. “He’ll stay in there, stay in the battle, and he’s got a touch [for] scoring. You saw that during the season, and it increased at the end of the season, and he was very dominant throughout the playoffs.”
That’s certainly stratospheric praise (and maybe just a wee bit of rhetoric) from Blake, who was referring to 6-2, 224-pound left wing prospect Michael Mersch, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Mersch quickly rose to the elite among the AHL’s power forwards in the last 33 games of the 2014-15 season with the Manchester Monarchs, and again during the Monarchs’ run to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship. He led all AHL scorers in the playoffs with 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points in 18 games (he was tied in points with teammate Jordan Weal, but Weal scored ten playoff goals, giving Mersch the tiebreaker), and was dominant throughout the post-season.
“I was fortunate to play—first of all, to come in after my senior year in college and get a little taste of everything, and then come back [this past season],” said Mersch. “We had a good season in Manchester. Things were clicking for us, as a team. It was a really fun year. I’m fortunate to have [had] that as a first-year pro.”
But if you rewind to the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the 22-year-old native of Park Ridge, Illinois did not start the season on fire. In fact, as so many first-year pros do, he struggled out of the gate.
“I was trying to figure out the pro game a little bit [during] the first half of the season,” Mersch noted. “Every time you go up a level in hockey there’s always a little bit of an adjustment period. It’s another level up. You’ve just kind of got to figure out how your game fits in, what you can do what you can’t do, and what you need to get better at.”
In the first 43 games of the 2014-15 regular season, Mersch scored seven goals and added nine assists for 16 points, with a +10 plus/minus rating and 15 penalty minutes. Two of his goals were scored on the power play.
Mersch turned the corner just past the halfway point of the season, at the 43-game mark. But who’s quibbling.
“He adapted to the pro level halfway through the season,” Blake noted. “Sometimes you look at how long it takes a kid coming out of college, or out of junior, to adapt to the pro style, and you can relate that to what his career path in the NHL is going to be, and it didn’t take him long to understand the pro game.”
Indeed. In the last 33 games of the season, Mersch caught fire, scoring 15 goals and contributing 14 assists for 29 points, with a +18 plus/minus rating and ten penalty minutes. Five of his goals came on the power play.
“That adjustment to playing [at the professional level], whether it’s playing in the American league or the National Hockey League, and how fast a player understands that adjustment, you see them start to takeover that league,” Blake explained. “It wasn’t even half the season in the American league. I think it will produce at the same level in the NHL, too.”
Blake credited Mersch and the Kings’ development staff for Mersch’s dramatic improvement.
“I keep coming back to our development team, the staples of our game, and the fundamentals they preach,” said Blake. “If guys are willing to learn, they’ll put the work into it, and you’ll get to see those results.”
Mersch quickly gained more and more confidence from the Monarchs coaching staff, and by the time the playoffs came around, he was moved onto the top line with Jordan Weal and Brian O’Neill.
That combination was magic for the Monarchs in playoffs, leading them to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
“They put us together for the playoffs, and I just went to the net,” said Mersch. “Those guys are amazing players. They’re quick and fast, they can play on the perimeter, get pucks to the net, and make great passes, so I knew it was going to get there, so that’s where I was going. That was my mindset.”
“He was a great complement to Weal and O’Neill because of his net front presence and puck protection down low, allowing these guys to get the puck, and then he knows where to go,” said Blake.
“They’re special players and it was fun to fit in with them,” Mersch noted. “I knew I wasn’t the same kind of player, so I was hoping it would work well.”
Playing with two skilled, quick and fast line mates forced Mersch to pick up his own pace.
“When you play with good players with speed, it brings your pace up to a whole other level,” he noted. “I learned that this year. It’s really cool to see yourself try to keep up with those guys.”
“It takes a lot of effort, specially for a big man like me,” he added. “But you’ve got to do it, or you’re not going to [be placed] in that position, and I want to be a guy who plays those big minutes. You have do it, or you’re not going to play.”
When told about the huge compliment paid to him by Blake about his net front presence, Mersch was humbled, but quickly looked ahead.
“That’s a pretty huge compliment from a great hockey mind, and a great hockey player,” he said. “It’s amazing if anybody says that, but especially coming from him. But there’s always things you can get better at, so that’s my mindset going into next season.”
“Maybe I had a great end-of-the-season last year,” he added. “But you’ve got to keep working to get better if you want to crack the next level, but I have a foundation I can build on.”
As reported in this space last summer, Mersch’s skating and footwork is the part of his game that needs the most work.
“I’m not the best skater or the fastest skater, but I think working on that—that’s the first thing on the list for me, working on power skating and getting better at that, lengthening my stride so that it’s in good shape at the beginning of the year,” he said.
Skating might be the weakest part of Mersch’s game, but it’s not as much of a weakness as it might appear.
“His skating isn’t the prettiest [in terms of form], or the smoothest out there,” Blake observed. “But when you break down his and watch his games very closely, he doesn’t lose a lot of battles based on his feet. That’s something he will overcome in the National Hockey League.”
Mersch said that his skating has not put him at a disadvantage.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘disadvantage’ because I’m not as fast as everybody else, I have to try to make up for it another way,” he explained. “You have to think the game a little bit differently, maybe a little quicker and smarter than guys who can rely more on their skating and quickness. That’s not saying that faster guys aren’t smart hockey players. I’m just trying to find my own niche.”
A common issue with young forward prospects coming out of college or junior hockey is that their defensive zone play often leaves much to be desired. But Mersch appears to be ahead of the game in that regard.
“At [the University of] Wisconsin, they preach defense,” he explained. “We were kind of a shutdown team. We’d win games, 3-2, 2-1. So defense wasn’t the biggest thing for me [to learn, as a first-year pro]. It was more the systems play—a bit of an adjustment, from a team standpoint, trying to make sure you’re in the right spots.”
“When you go to the pro level, you’re playing with a lot of good players,” he elaborated. “You have to expect a lot of good plays from other players. In college, the talent level isn’t as good, so you have to expect a lot better passes, especially in scoring areas. Guys get you the puck, and it’s right on your tape. You’ve got to make sure you’re ready to put it in the net, and you have to know the next play, no matter what. You have to see the open guys. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to play much.”
Spending four years at the University of Wisconsin has also helped Mersch’s development, and not just from his work on the ice—it’s about maturity, as well.
“When they go to college, they come out a little bit older than some of our junior [prospects], and we do expect [greater maturity],” said Blake. “But I do think that’s part of his game—the maturity. He sticks up for his teammates, doesn’t take bad penalties, he’s not going to put you in a bad situation, understands wall play with no time left, where you have to take a hit but you have to make that play—that’s all maturity, and that’s all understood in his game already.”
That maturity, along with hard work and dedication to improving, has Mersch on an accelerated pace, in terms of his development.
“I do think he took steps quicker at the American league level than we would’ve expected,” Blake noted. “He needs to continue on that. He needs to become more and more of a pro, but it didn’t take long for him to do that in the American league, and I’m sure he’ll continue that this year.”
“When you see the work he does put in away from the rink, you understand why that has occurred,” Blake added. “[Players like Weal, O’Neill and Mersch] do the extra work. It’s not a coincidence that what they do off the ice, and what they do during the summer to prepare themselves, have made them better players.”
Mersch who is back home in Chicago, indicated that he took some time off after the Monarchs won the 2015 Calder Cup Championship, but he is now back in the gym.
“I took a few weeks off to let some bumps and bruises heal up,” he said. “I spent time with my family, my girlfriend, and some of my close friends. I did that for a few weeks, but I’ve been back in the gym for a few weeks now. It’s going well.”
Although he knows that he has exceeded expectations, Mersch is not letting that go to his head, especially in terms of thoughts about making the big club’s roster in the coming season.
“I try not to put too much thought or expectations into that stuff,” he said. “I’m working hard this summer, as I did at the end of the season, to try to get to the next level.”
“The L.A. Kings have a development path they put a lot of their players on,” he added. “I’m going to work hard to build off of last year. I’m going to go into training camp and see what happens. But if you’re expecting to make the team, or anything like that, it doesn’t help you at all, so my mindset is to just go in, work hard and build on last year, whether it’s in Ontario or L.A.”
“I’ll just go with the flow. Playing pro hockey is a privilege, so I’ll keep working hard at it, wherever. You never know, but if you worry about it, it’s a waste of time.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Michael Mersch (left), shown here scoring in overtime of Game 1 of the 2015 Calder Cup Final against the Utica Comets on June 6, 2015, at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.Photo: Blake Gumprecht, courtesy Manchester Monarchs.
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Rob Blake (4:54)
Frozen Royalty’s Michael Mersch Coverage
- Will Speed, Skating Continue to Block Michael Mersch’s Rise To The NHL
- Grandpa’s Advice Helps Michael Mersch Lead Ontario To Game 1 Win Over San Diego
- LA Kings LW Michael Mersch Talks About Move Up To The NHL, First NHL Goal
- Only A Matter Of Time Now Before LA Kings LW Prospect Michael Mersch Bursts Onto NHL Scene
- LA Kings Have A Power Forward In The Making In Michael Mersch
Frozen Royalty’s 2015 Off-Season LA Kings Prospects Coverage
- LA Kings Rob Blake on Prospect Brian O’Neill: “Not Big…But He Competes At The Level Of The Big Guys”
- LA Kings’ Rob Blake On Jordan Weal: “There’s Not A Lot of Players Like That Around”
- From Doubts To Dominating: LA Kings F Prospect Jordan Weal Has Risen To The Top Of The AHL
- LA Kings G Prospect J.F. Berube Is Pushing For Job With The Big Club In 2015-16
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