Imagine trading in a swimsuit for a snowsuit, going from a first-place AHL team to a struggling team mid-season, or the pressure of being involved in a trade that fetches a former NHL MVP. For most, this would be a less than an ideal situation, but for Nick Merkley moving from the sunny comfortability of Tucson to Binghamton proved to be a blessing and a chance to prove his NHL worth.
On December 16, 2019, the Devils made one of the biggest trades in franchise history dealing Taylor Hall to the Coyotes for Merkley, Nathan Schnarr, Kevin Bahl, a 2020 first-round pick and a conditional 2021 third-round pick. Tossing aside his swimsuit, Merkley jumped on a plane and joined the team in Binghamton, where he had his chances early with the Devils affiliate, but it wasn't until his fifth game where he got on the scoresheet with two assists. From there on out Binghamton lost only two of their next twelve, a team effort, but Merkley grew as a player with ample opportunity to succeed, including powerplay time and top minutes.
1. NEW BEGINNINGS
Leading into the 2015 NHL Draft, Merkley was touted as high-end offensive player with grit, hustle, and a sandpaper edge. Producing at over a point per game with the WHL's Kelowna Rockets there was no doubting why the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the first round; however, Merkley struggled with injuries and consistency in their farm system. Coming into the Binghamton Devils system, Head Coach Mark Dennehy, gave Merkley the time to succeed which the young forward credited for his recent improvements:
"Getting the opportunities I wasn't getting in Tucson on the powerplay and more minutes gave me that confidence again and becoming the player that I was drafted as."
That success may have fueled the big club's interim Head Coach Alain Nasreddine to put Merkley on the powerplay in his first game with the New Jersey Devils. Flying into Carolina, both figuratively and on the ice, Merkley made an instant impression with the Devils recording an assist on the powerplay, showing poise with the puck and throwing his weight around. That night, coach Nasreddine was impressed with Merkley's debut "He stood out. He competed. He worked hard on the puck. I really liked his game. That line I thought was really effective all night long. They played in the offensive zone, kept it simple." Given a total of 11:25 in ice-time for his first game with the Devils, Merkley utilized every second of it to earn a spot in the lineup for the team's next game at home, a game he'll never forget
2. THAT FIRST GOAL FEELING
"It brought tears to my eyes, I've been waiting 20 years for this, it's like a dream come true"
Nick Merkley didn't have time to shed any tears after scoring his first NHL goal, but fittingly enough his Dad did. After speaking with MSG's Erika Wachter only moments after Nick's first NHL goal, Jeff Merkley didn't hold back how proud he was of his son. On the ice, Merkley's goal vs Columbus threw the Prudential Center crowd into a roar, as expected lots of fans were eagerly awaiting Merkley's debut given the high-profile trade in which he became a Devil. Not only was the goal his first NHL goal, but it came at an opportune time in the game and propelled the Devils to a 4-3 shootout win that night. Merkley was the 2nd star.
Video: CBJ@NJD: Merkley nets Rooney rebound for first goal
"I was just forechecking keeping it simple, dumped the puck in, Joey Anderson got in on the forecheck and made a pass out to Kevin Rooney who put it on net and off the pads right to me and I tapped it in. Obviously, my Dad was there too so I instantly started thinking about him, it was an exciting moment and I won't forget it my whole life"
3. LEARNING FROM LEON
The NHL player community is a very small circle of players who competed for years before they became pros, walk down any backstage corridor of an NHL arena post-game and you'll see pockets of players reminiscing about their pasts or smiling about what just occurred on the ice. For Nick Merkley, few of these post-game chit chats have occurred in his young career, but the next time the Edmonton Oilers come to town you might find him sharing a moment with the NHL's top point producer, no his number isn't 97 it's 29.
Leading the NHL in points at the pause, Leon Draisaitl was once a close teammate of Merkley's in their WHL days in Kelowna, BC Canada. They competed for the ultimate prize in junior hockey, the Memorial Cup, coming just shy but the time they spent together still sticks in Merkley's memory. On a recent episode of the Devils Pausecast, play-by-play announcer Matt Loughlin asked the young forward about his time alongside the NHL's leading scorer and what he learned from Draisaitl's talent.
"He's an amazing player, I've always known that," said Merkley. "I remember little things that he would pick up the dinner tab being on an NHL contract at the time. It's little things like that you remember, shows the character of a guy and that makes him a great player too because he cares about his teammates."
Reflecting on the playing alongside Draisaitl during the Memorial Cup, Merkley said, "it was nice to get a boost from him, he helped me with my early career. He slows down the game and makes it go at his pace, he's the smartest guy I've played with and is dangerous on the powerplay and all over the ice."
While Merkley only played four games with the New Jersey Devils this year, his impact didn't go unnoticed. Teammates, coaches, and fans definitely recognized the reasons why he was a key piece in a franchise-altering trade in the same way Arizona saw a reason to draft him in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft.