Coming into the 2015-2016 season, several forward vacancies have allowed for an uncommon competition amongst the roster hopefuls of the LA Kings. Realistically, there were four roster spots open. Nick Shore, Jordan Nolan, and Andy Andreoff have probably played well enough to justify keeping their current spots. That leaves one spot left for hopefuls Jordan Weal, Brian O'Neill, and Michael Mersch. Weal's skill and potential are evident, and he is not waiver-exempt, though his size is his challenge. All that is also true for O'Neill, though even more so on size and age. For Mersch, waiver status isn't a problem; he can be sent down to Ontario without any risk of another team snatching him up. So why does he present such a hard decision for the team?
To put it simply, Mersch has put up a lot of shots. He's totaled 17 shots in five games, to be exact. That ties him for second in the NHL pre-season amongst all players, and he's the only rookie on the list. While the remaining players on that list have only had three games, Mersch has put up his shot totals with only 10 to 12 minutes of ice time a night, and he's only had just over a minute of power play time over the past three games -- the games in which he has put up the bulk of his total. On top of that, most of his shots come from just outside the crease, so he's also creating scoring chances nearly every time the puck comes off his stick.
None of this should be surprise to those who have followed Mersch. We covered his potential in our Top 25 Under 25 post, and embedded Monarchs reporter Andy Tonge reported about repeatedly earlier this year in the Monarchs' Calder Cup playoff run. And watching him this preseason, it's hard to see his performance as a fluke. Standard disclaimers about small samples apply here, especially since Mersch has a reason to be more motivated, and he's playing against varying qualities of rosters. However, Mersch looks incredibly comfortable around the net.
A great example is Tuesday's game against the Anaheim Ducks. Mersch had the puck behind the opposing net. What you'd normally expect is for the player to pass to someone crashing the net or to quickly whip around to face the goalie and try to stuff it in short side. Instead, he emerged from below the goal line skating backwards before flinging a backhand off the goalie's weak side pad. It's not just that he can get shots off near the crease - his level of comfort and creativity near the net seems to be a big reason for his success. This is probably a nightmare for opposing goalies and exactly the type of net-front presence the Kings are always harping in post-game interviews after a loss.
He also seems to have been getting more comfortable as time goes on, with his last two games featuring shot totals of seven and six. Line mates seem to have not mattered too much either. Take a look at the shot attempts for and against in the last two games. Mersch had 10 shot attempts in the Colorado game alone.
Of course, this is only a handful of games, and it is the preseason. Even so, his relative performance shines. He has been able to outshoot the likes of Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter while also showing defensive responsibility. Mersch has the size that the Kings love. Still, he only has one full season of AHL experience, and there are other players, established and new, that the Kings could lose to waivers for him to be on the roster. At this point, he's played every preseason game, and it seems fair to expect he'll play the last, too. His performance, and more specifically the type of player he presents as, should at least give the Kings pause when determining roster plans this year. While it's tough to see him unseating a regular favorite like Dwight King or Kyle Clifford for a depth left wing spot, in the post season performance rules all. A call up some time this season seems extremely likely.
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