AUDIO/VIDEO: Also includes audio of interviews with Ontario Reign left wing and Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Michael Mersch and Reign head coach Mike Stothers. Also linked is video of an interview with Kings assistant general manager (and Reign general manager) Rob Blake.
ONTARIO, CA — Borrowing from the various Star Trek television series and motion pictures, the Los Angeles Kings have a power forward-style left wing prospect in their system who was already moving at warp speed towards playing in the National Hockey League.
Last season, you could say that younger player was moving at the low end of the warp speed scale, maybe warp 1 or 2. But with the 2015-16 season just a handful of games old, it is very much apparent that this player has quickly reached top speeds, exceeding warp 9.
As reported in this space on August 5, 2015, Michael Mersch was already on a fast track in his development, becoming a star in the American Hockey League last season while he helped lead the Manchester Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
After an outstanding training camp with the Kings, one in which the 23-year-old, 6-2, 224-pound native of Park Ridge, Illinois played in all six pre-season games, Mersch was assigned to the Ontario Reign of the AHL.
Mersch, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is still in his entry-level contract, and is not subject to waivers, which played a significant role in the decision to send him back to the AHL this season.
But if his start to the 2015-16 AHL season is any indication, Mersch isn’t sulking.
In the Reign’s first five games of the season, Mersch has already scored four goals and has contributed an assist for five points, with four penalty minutes and a +6 plus/minus rating.
In other words, Mersch has not only picked up right where he left off at the end of the 2014-15 Calder Cup Playoffs, but he has pushed himself past warp 9 in his work to advance to the NHL.
“That was my mindset, coming back with the Reign here, just to keep pushing,” said Mersch. “It was a great training camp [with the Kings]. I was happy to be able to play in all six [pre-season] games there. It was my mindset to keep pushing, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Mersch’s play on both sides of the puck has really caught the eye of his head coach, who talked about a play Mersch made at the end of the second period of a 3-0 victory over the San Jose Barracuda at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario on October 24.
“The way the second period ended, if you think back to the two blocked shots [by Mersch], we had to kill a penalty, and we actually did, but we couldn’t get out of our zone,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers, who coached the AHL Monarchs (now the Kings’ ECHL affiliate) last season. “Prior to that, Mersch and [Kings center prospect Nic] Dowd had been out killing penalties, and they were pretty tired. But they looked at me and said, ‘Hey Stuts, I’m ready to go again.’”
“That’s the type of guys you want, guys like Dowd and Mersch,” added Stothers. “Mersch has just been phenomenal. He sacrifices himself for the betterment of the team, he makes two, huge plays for us to get out of the second period, re-group, and get started for the third.”
Something that Mersch isn’t doing this season is starting slow, like he did last year, his first in professional hockey.
“It’s a quicker start for me,” Mersch noted. “There’s some growing pains in your first year, and you work through them. You just keep going. We had a great run, and a great team. I’m just building on that [this past] summer, and through the season here.”
Mersch is also playing the game at a faster, more NHL-like pace, which has really caught the eyes of the coaching staff, and Kings management.
“The NHL [level] is the fastest game out there,” said Mersch. “Things happen a little faster up there, so you try to play at that pace here. The pace is really fast here, don’t get me wrong, but you try to play at that pace, work out little details, keep my feet moving up ice.”
Pace is also something Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, who also serves as the general manager of the Reign, talks about a lot when it comes to the Kings’ young prospects.
“The pace [Mersch] played at—I think, with six pre-season games for us—he’s understanding what that level is going to be like,” Blake noted. “He was around the NHL guys that whole training camp, so he understands that.”
Stothers couldn’t be higher on Mersch.
“Listen, I was very fortunate to have [Mersch] all of last year,” Stothers noted. “I know exactly what he can do. Nothing really surprises me with him. His contributions, both offensively and defensively—he’s a guy, when you look at the game, and you’re making some for the rest of the team to watch, he’s in quite a few of the highlights, and for all the right reasons.”
“As a coach, you’re not supposed to have favorites,” Stothers added. “But I enjoy watching Michael Mersch play. If I was a fan, I would love to come to the rink and watch him play.”
Blake is on the same page.
“I thought he had a tremendous training camp,” said Blake. “He does a lot of things that are hard to find in the [NHL]. Puck possession down low, and the way he creates things in front of the net. You see it time and time again in the games we’ve watched him. He’s very good. He’s set his mind on the bigger prize here, and he’s going to develop at this level here.”
“You saw what he was capable of during the playoffs [last season],” added Blake. “But sometimes you rate these guys on how quickly they adapt to the league. He [came] out of college, and you saw, within 40 games last year, he was starting to understand the league, and he was starting to take over. The message to him out of camp was to continue that, and things will open up for [him].”
“The leadership part, he can pick up here quickly after a year. They had a team that went on to win the Calder Cup, and he was a big part of that. He’ll be able to pick that leadership up.”
Even though his coach and general manager are sky-high on him, Mersch remains focused on the areas of his game that still need to improve.
“[I need] to polish some things up here, play a [leadership] role on this team—I’m considered one of the older guys here now, a returning player, so [it’s about] taking more ownership,” he said. “[There’s] some little details, just stuff like that. Nothing really crazy.”
What exactly are those little details?
“Playing on my off side a little bit, my wall plays—just executing on that stuff, getting my feet moving up ice, and working on those first few steps, which has always been one of the things I need to work on,” Mersch noted. “Just stuff like that—cleaning it up a little bit, and hope to get an opportunity.”
Perhaps more importantly, Mersch has also kept his skates firmly on the ice, so to speak.
“You don’t really take [being assigned to the minors] as a demotion,” he emphasized. “This is my second year, right? So it’s just keep pushing. I haven’t learned everything yet. Nothing’s given to you, either, so you’ve got to keep working on it.”
“If you’re going to take it negatively, it’s not going to help you, either,” he added. “You always have to have a good attitude, and that’s easy around here, because we have such a tight group, and a great coaching staff. They help you out, and they want you to succeed just as much as [you do].”
That opportunity Mersch spoke of could come a lot sooner than anyone thought. Indeed, when yours truly asked Stothers about Mersch possibly being ready to play at the NHL level, Stothers acknowledged that he was, albeit humorously.
“I’d better keep this a little more quiet, huh? We don’t want to lose him anytime soon,” he said. “That’s just our little secret. Don’t let that get out, all right?”
Blake wasn’t far behind.
“Yep, For sure,” Blake said. “I think what he does now is that he hones his game at this level, so when the opportunity comes, it’s not just a given opportunity. [Rather], he’s ready to make that step, and he doesn’t look back after that.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Michael Mersch (4:32)
Mike Stothers (5:28)
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
- LA Kings LW Prospect Michael Mersch Is Powering His Way Towards The NHL
- LA Kings Have A Power Forward In The Making In Michael Mersch
Interview with Rob Blake, October 24, 2015 via Ontario Reign on YouTube
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