Anytime an improving NHL player has to pause their season, whether it's for an injury, contract negotiation, or an unfortunate pandemic, there's a level of frustration. The New Jersey Devils team, as a collective unit, were playing their best hockey of the year when the season paused on March 12, but for Dakota Mermis, the pause was especially frustrating given his long six-year journey to regular NHL minutes.
When Devils fans, and hockey fans for that matter, hear the name Dakota Mermis their first thought is usually, "wow, what an interesting name."
Video: STL@NJD: Mermis wires home first career goal
In fact, it's a name that play-by-play announcers dream of bellowing out over a broadcast, case in point Steve Cangialosi's call on Mermis' first NHL goal. In talking with Matt Loughlin on a recent Devils podcast, Mermis simply said, "my parents wanted a unique name for their son and there's not a lot of Dakota Mermis's out there." Dakota fondly remembers a story his grandfather shares about his namesake "Dakota? Why don't you just call him Delaware" when the newborn boy entered this world in Alton, Illinois. Regardless of the namesake, the Mermis path was a twisting one that led to those six letters being sewn onto the back of a Devils jersey.
10 IN THE BLACK AND RED
Ten games is not the suggested barometer to grade an NHL ready defenseman, but there's enough in that short time-frame to recommend a player's strengths and weaknesses at the NHL level. For Mermis, the ability to move the puck and skate were definitely his glaring positives in the ten games up with the big club; however, there's also a strong sense of responsibility in the defensive zone. Mermis finished with one goal and three assists in his ten games, but the glaring stat is the +7 rating he finished with. Moving the puck up and out of the zone, or carrying it out seemed to be second nature for the defenseman. Taking a closer look, Mermis finished with an average of 19:05 and only one game where he didn't record a shot on net, but in that particular game vs the Rangers he finished with two assists.
SHOOT THE PUCK!
A shoot-first mentality is something that seems so simple but can drive NHL coaches and fans to the insane asylum, in today's NHL it's so hard to get possession of the puck so players are reluctant to shoot at times. For Mermis he approaches every chance with a shoot-first mentality, as evidence in his stats and first NHL goal. Following that fateful night against St. Louis at the Prudential Center, Mermis humbly described his first goal and that shooter mentality:
"Everyone has different paths, certainly been a longer one for me, I believe in my ability to play here and the moment came and you just got to keep shooting it, eventually they're gonna go in. Was great to do it here (at the Prudential Center) and get the win to conclude a fun night."
When the skates are hung up, Mermis will undoubtedly regale his kids and grandkids about the rocket shot from the point that lead to a victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions, eventually, they'll realize that it was brain over brawn that lead to that first NHL goal. There's such an emphasis on shots for and against in today's NHL, it always helps to have a few players who have that shoot-first mentality, especially from the back end.
Mermis' 10 game stretch with the Devils certainly wasn't handed to him on a silver platter. After playing 53 games with the Binghamton Devils, the 26-year-old defenseman was turning heads at every turn with three goals and 16 assists, including four assists in the two games leading up to his call-up. However, hockey operations looked beyond his stats and found a player that could play well on both sides of the ice which is why he was given the opportunity in February.
Flashback even further to July 1, the opening day of 2019 NHL free-agency, sure all the big names are the thrill of that day, but further down the list players like Dakota Mermis have multiple opportunities to play elsewhere, so why New Jersey? When looking back to the Devils pitch for adding a depth player like Mermis, then Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald motivated him to move out east from Arizona.
"The Devils were really excited for me and my family, most of the conversation was with Tom Fitzgerald, and the strong emphasis they put on family first and growing a culture of close-knit guys who can play hockey. The biggest thing is their commitment to development and giving you anything you need, the resources are there and they're committed to that."
Although Mermis' deal was only for one year, and now the 10-game experiment is over with a shortened season, a flash of an NHL ready defenseman was shown through offensive numbers and defensive responsibility. With two AHL teams, an ECHL team, and two NHL teams accumulated in his hockey resume, perhaps Dakota Mermis has finally found a place to call home.