A prospect's arrival in the AHL is a big milestone, for a number of reasons. For one, congrats, you made it to the second-highest level of North American professional hockey! More than anything, though, it's when we start transitioning from "here's what this guy could do" to "here's what this guy probably will do." For instance, take NHLe, a projection measure which we've used on Jewels from the Crown in the past. Running an estimate based on a player's junior scoring totals is fun, but the range of situations, teammates, and ages makes the NHLe little more than a guess. However, the commonly accepted AHL conversion (0.4-0.45 NHL points/game per AHL point/game) is considerably more reliable. A player's first AHL campaign, then, gives you an immediate idea of how their skills might translate.
Which brings us to Michael Mersch.
|Rank||Player||DOB||Nationality||Draft Year/Position||Current League||2014 Rank|
||10/2/1992||USA||2011/110th overall (4th)
After four years at Wisconsin and a cup of coffee with Manchester moved him slowly up our Top 25 rankings last year, Mersch's all-important debut campaign was solid. 22 goals and 45 points aren't spectacular numbers, but they did put him at #7 on the AHL rookie scoring list. The most encouraging part of that is how Mersch performed during the latter part of the season, after that so-called adjustment phase: as Gann Matsuda pointed out, Mersch averaged nearly a point per game in the season's final 33 games (29 points), including 15 of his 22 goals.
It was easy to overlook the second-half surge, as most of us were a little distracted by the struggles of the Los Angeles Kings during that time. However, when the Calder Cup Playoffs rolled around, our full attention was on Mersch as he skated with proven AHL studs Brian O'Neill and Jordan Weal. And Mersch delivered to the tune of 13 goals and 22 points in 18 games. Factor in that second-half run and the playoff run doesn't look all that fluky.
So the first question facing Mersch is performance. Another 45-point season would be disappointing, especially if Mersch gets a full season with Brian O'Neill, Nic Dowd, or Adrian Kempe on his line. 60 or more points, though, and Mersch sets himself up well to take Milan Lucic's roster spot (or the spot of another traded forward) in 2016-17...
... which is the other question. Mersch has to fit in LA in order to stick. He might be the biggest shoo-in to eventually crack LA's roster on the Reign. He's younger than Weal, bigger than O'Neill, more proven than Kempe or Zykov, and more of a prototypical power forward than all four of those guys. However, given that there's essentially zero chance of him finding his way to LA in 2015-16, Mersch's job this year (aside from scoring) is to convince management that he can handle the defensive assignments and the shuffles which come with the bottom-six territory. That makes the difference between him getting Andreoff's role and getting King's role. (Andreoff never had Mersch's scoring numbers in the AHL, but he did have ten points in seven games during a brief return to the AHL this year.)
Early signs are promising, though. Matsuda quotes Rob Blake, who summarized those goals in three words: "becoming a pro."
I do think he took steps quicker at the American [Hockey] League level than we would’ve expected. 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 [Hockey] League, and I’m sure he’ll continue that this year.
The NCAA background helps in that regard, as does the organizational focus on two-way play. If he impresses on both ends in 2015-16, expect to see him doing more stuff like this at Staples... when it counts.