EL SEGUNDO, CA — At 24 years of age and having played three full seasons in the Los Angeles Kings organization, left wing Michael Mersch could be at a crossroads, in terms of his future with the Kings.
Indeed, the 6-2, 213-pound native of Park Ridge, Illinois, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft, is in a bit of a tenuous position due to the fact that if the Kings want to assign him to the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League, he must clear waivers. If another NHL team claims him, the Kings would lose him for nothing.
Despite that, Mersch could also clear waivers and return to the Reign, where he has played for most of the last two seasons, along with one full season with the AHL version of the Manchester Monarchs in 2014-15, helping lead the Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
Mersch also played in 17 games with the Kings last season.
“[Last year], he had an excellent training camp,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “He was one of our leading scorers [in exhibition games]. Then he got sent down [to Ontario], and got off to a bit of a slow start. But then he re-established himself.”
“Mersch is a guy who, when he’s got the puck, there are certain moves that he’s mastered at the American Hockey League level, with regards to puck protection, taking pucks from behind the net to the front of the net, and jamming them home,” added Futa. “Now he’s got to find a way for those skills to translate to the NHL level.”
Mersch has proven to be a pretty solid prospect who is also effective on the defensive side of the puck, and on special teams. But the knock on him has been a rather glaring one: his skating.
“He’s not a naturally graceful skater,” Futa observed. “But he’s a competitive guy who’s always been able to will his way around the ice, and he’s got himself in the best shape of his life now.”
“His game—you have to manage your energy within a shift,” Futa added. “Mersch’s effectiveness is around the net, with the puck. But when he starts to run around to finish checks, he might exhaust himself in areas of the ice where he doesn’t need to do that. Sometimes there’s nothing left in the tank, either for a backcheck, or for him to establish his presence around the net.”
Futa emphasized that it’s not about conditioning, or a lack thereof, in Mersch’s case.
“He’s in a really good spot, mentally, and as I said, he’s in the best shape of his life,” said Futa. “At the NHL level, in the early stages, he’s impressed the coaching staff. But he’s got to manage his minutes, and he’s got to manage his shifts so that his energy level is as close [as possible to being the same] at the end as it was at the beginning.”
“There are some guys, like Trevor Lewis, who can give you 30 seconds, and then, go to the bench still [at the same level],” added Futa. “Usually for Mersch, the tank is empty [at the end of a shift].”
It seems that some players are born with that ability. But for others? Well…
“Everybody is gifted, but there are some guys who are just naturals when it comes to skating, and it’s natural for them to maintain the same energy level,” Futa noted. “With Mersch, it’s not how hard he works. It’s that everybody’s different, and when he taps out, if he’s a long way from the bench—you can see it at the American league level. When he has to stay on his feet and hang in there for battles, a lot of times—we joke about it. Usually, when he scores, there are very few goal celebrations where he’s left standing. In the National Hockey League, if you’re off your feet, and the puck isn’t in the net, you get yourself in a whole bunch of trouble.”
Futa was careful not to characterize what Mersch must do as “pacing himself.”
“Without making it a negative connotation, I think there’s a difference between pacing yourself and managing your energy,” he stressed. “It looks like he’s in a good state, his pace has been up, his energy has been up, and the coaches have been happy with his practice habits.”
Mersch pointed out that he put in a lot of hard work over the summer on his skating.
“This [past] summer, I spent it in Chicago, working on my speed,” he said. “The game is getting really fast. I focused on a few other things. The staples of my game are in front of the net, wall play, and shooting the puck. You focus on the things you’re good at, and try to get better at the things you aren’t so good at.”
“[My skating] has improved a lot,” he added. “I really focused on it over the summer, doing power skating. I put a lot of time and effort into it. From where my skating was, seven years ago, to where it is today, my skating has come a long way.”
A significant part of Mersch’s skating work was on technique.
“You have to have great conditioning,” he noted. “But there’s technique, breaking bad habits and establishing good habits that are big parts of getting better at skating.”
“My first three steps [are critical],” he added. “I worked on that [via outdoor track workouts]. That paid off. Then, on the ice, that work transfers over by you staying low, and pushing through. I have a lot of video from my summer work, trying to keep my hips low on pivots, and when I’m starting, I’m not popping up—I’m staying low.”
Futa was quick to point out that all the work on technique won’t mean anything if Mersch reverts back to old habits when game time rolls around.
“When you’re an older player, it’s hard to change your technique,” he said. “All the skating drills, the new technique, and the changes to your stride have to translate to when you’re playing.”
Could his conditioning be what puts Mersch over the top this season?
“If you’re more fit, and you’re stronger, odds are that you’re going to be faster,” said Futa. “He’s put himself in a situation where he feels really good about himself, on the ice, and his fitness numbers are good. Now he has to make it translate to a hockey game.”
“Everybody does different things in different ways to get themselves into the proper condition where they can perform their best,” added Futa. “We can do 1,000 tests, and they all look great on paper—I know for a fact that we’re thrilled with the overall conditioning of our team, and [Mersch is in great shape]. That impressed the coaches because they could tell that the guy has been working. But now that’s got to translate to games.”
In fact, Mersch impressed the coaches enough to earn a spot as a late addition to the roster that is now in China to face the Vancouver Canucks in pre-season games in Shanghai this morning (4:30 AM Pacific time) and in Beijing on September 23 (12:30 AM Pacific time).
“[Head coach John Stevens] mentioned it, along with [general manager Rob Blake’s] thoughts, that those who played for the Kings last year were going to China, and then there was going to be a select group that would join them,” Futa noted. “Michael’s work ethic impressed the coaching staff, so they put him on the plane.”
Earning a spot on the China trip bodes well for Mersch’s immediate future. But he could be a victim yet again of the old numbers game, or he could show that he isn’t going to beat out an established player for a spot on the Kings roster. Either way, that would likely result in him being assigned to Ontario.
For his part, Mersch isn’t worried about that.
“I think I’m a good enough player to play in the NHL,” he emphasized. “[If he doesn’t make the Kings roster out of training camp], I just keep playing, keep working hard. I don’t think anything changes for me. I’ll just keep playing hockey, and keep on working hard. That’s my job.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Michael Mersch (foreground). Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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