There is a calm, relaxed tone to Nick Merkley's voice over the phone. It takes only a few seconds to get the sense that the 23-year-old from Calgary understands the circuitous journey that most pro hockey players take to get to the top level.
"I think that this is a great opportunity for me, definitely," said Merkley, of his move to the Devils organization in the Taylor Hall trade in December. "I think with (Arizona) they are going to go for it this season and that's why they made the (Hall trade). But right now, I have to fight for a job here to get (an opportunity) in New Jersey and earn a callup."
Merkley was taken with the final pick in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Coyotes, the year that the Devils took Pavel Zacha sixth overall and got Mackenzie Blackwood 12 selections after Merkley.
During his draft year, Merkley posted 20 goals and 70 assists playing for the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets, who won the league title. Bolstered by playing with current Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl in the playoffs, Merkley added 27 points (5G, 22A) in 19 playoff contests and another three goals and two assists at the Memorial Cup, where the Rockets lost in overtime in the championship game.
Those offensive instincts have already attracted the attention of his new coach in Binghamton, Mark Dennehy.
"He sees the ice so well and makes plays," said the Binghamton head coach. "He's just one of those guys that is always thinking about the next play."
Dennehy pointed out that the acquisition of Merkley and Nate Schnarr in the Hall deal has given him many more options up front, to go along with recent Devils callup Ben Street and Brett Seney.
It's perhaps no coincidence that since the trade the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate is now playing its best hockey of the season.
"They give me a lot more options," said Dennehy.
Now in his third year of pro hockey, Merkley's first two years in the Coyotes organization were spent playing in Tucson, its AHL affiliate, aside from a brief one-game call-up two years ago, when he was an AHL all-star. He produced at nearly a point-a-game pace in that time (28 goals, 45 assists in 83 AHL contests), though he was down a notch this season (26GP, 3G, 13A) before the trade.
Analyzing offensive production at the AHL level can sometimes be a mug's game because it often depends upon the roles players are asked to perform to optimize their development.
Becoming a complete player ready to compete at the top level is the main goal.
"There aren't too many guys who just score, only the elite skill guys do that in the NHL," said Dennehy. "Everyone else has to play a 200-feet game."
For his part, Merkley speaks about his work doing "the small things" that round out his development and what he hopes will catch the attention of Devils management.
"I really feel that if I keep trending that way, I will deserve the opportunity," he said. "(But) once you get there, you have to seize it."
Just getting to know Merkley, Dennehy said he's seen indications that he knows the drill.
"I haven't had a lot of time with him but I think he understands that this is a process."