ONTARIO, Calif. — During a 5-4 overtime win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Feb. 12, the Los Angeles Kings lost sniper Marian Gaborik to an apparent left knee injury.
Although most expected the Kings to immediately recall a forward from the Ontario Reign, their American Hockey League affiliate, no roster move was forthcoming. But chances are that it won’t be long before they do, and the Kings have made it all but clear that 23-year-old left wing/power forward Michael Mersch, one of their top prospects, will get the nod.
Mersch was recalled on Dec. 9, 2015, and made his NHL debut at Pittsburgh two nights later. In 15 games, Mersch scored a goal and added two assists for three points, with a +1 plus-minus rating before he was returned to the Reign on Jan. 15, 2016.
Despite missing about five weeks of the current AHL season while he was up with the Kings, Mersch leads the Reign with 18 goals, and is third on the team in overall scoring.
Despite all that, chances are that most everyone in the hockey world is thinking, “who?”
But the 6-foot-2, 224-pound native of Park Ridge, Illinois, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (110th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, just might catch the attention of the rest of the hockey world in a relatively short time, but not because he’s a sniper with great hands and blinding speed. Rather, this kid scores goals because he has an uncanny knack for getting to the front of the net and using power moves to get pucks past goaltenders.
“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 Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, who also serves as general manager of the Reign. “He’ll stay in there, stay in the battle, and he’s got a touch [for] scoring. You saw that during the [2014-15] season, and it increased at the end of the season, and he was very dominant throughout the playoffs.”
The playoffs Blake referred to was the 2014-15 run by the Manchester Monarchs, who were the Kings’ AHL affiliate last season, winner of the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
This season, the Kings swapped their minor league franchises, with the Reign becoming their AHL affiliate and the Monarchs switching to the ECHL. But while with the Monarchs, Mersch wasted little time in joining the AHL’s crop of elite power forwards.
During Manchester’s run to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship, Mersch led all AHL scorers with 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points in 18 games (tied with teammate and now former Kings prospect Jordan Weal).
“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.”
Although it took a little time for Mersch to adapt to professional hockey, he made the adjustment quicker than most.
“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.”
“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 added. “It wasn’t even half the season in the American league. I think it will produce at the same level in the NHL, too.”
Mersch has made a huge impression on Reign head coach Mike Stothers.
“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 shared similar sentiments.
“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,” said Blake. “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 one hitch in Mersch’s game is skating and footwork.
“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,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say [that his skating puts me at a disadvantage] because I’m not as fast as everybody else,” he added. “I have to try to make up for it another way. 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.”
Blake agreed with Mersch’s assessment.
“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.”
Spending four years at the University of Wisconsin has given Mersch a bit of an advantage, in terms of his development.
“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.”
Although his December recall was due to veteran left wing Kyle Clifford suffering a concussion, the Kings also wanted to see Mersch play against NHL-caliber talent, and they saw what they expected—that Mersch was ready to play in the NHL.
In fact, when asked, prior to the recall, if Mersch was ready to play at the NHL level for good, Stothers grinned widely.
“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, [Mersch is ready for the NHL], for sure,” he 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.”