One name you can expect to hear quite a bit over the next six months is Michael Mersch. A forward, originally drafted by L.A. in the fourth round in 2011, he recently signed a three-year entry level contract and made his pro debut with the Manchester Monarchs on Friday night.
Although he played at the University of Wisconsin for the last four years – where former King Gary Shuchuk is an assistant coach – Mersch isn’t entirely unfamiliar with several of his new AHL teammates.
Throughout his collegiate career he played against Derek Forbort and Nick Shore. They were also his teammates during his time with the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, MI back in 2010.
“It’s obviously nice when you see familiar faces that you know when you come into a new environment,” Mersch said after completing his first practice with the Monarchs. “Those guys have been pretty welcoming to me. In general, I’m just trying to meet guys and hang out with them a little more, feel them out, and see what they’re all about. I’m trying to do that with everybody here and it’s going to take some time.”
Time is something he’ll have a lot of in the weeks ahead. The AHL usually only plays on weekends, similar to his college schedule. However, rather than classes, homework, and professors during the week, Mersch now begins the professional development part of his career. This is when he’ll be hitting the gym and developing a routine built around enhancing his skills on the ice and properly conditioning his body when he’s not wearing skates, as well.
“There are a lot of guys here, helping and giving you feedback,” he explained. “Now that I’m here in Manchester, we can go over the systems, plays, and stuff like that. The coaches here have a pretty good grasp on what the Kings do and they try to work some things off of that.”
Known primarily as a goal scorer, Mersch was nearly a point-per-game player over the last three years. This season, with 35 points in 37 games (22 goals, 13 assists), he was named to the first-team All-Big Ten after tying for first in goals and fifth in points. Perhaps the most impressive stat though is that he never missed a game at Wisconsin, playing 157 straight games for the Badgers.
“We’re excited that he had a successful senior season at Wisconsin, so we’re happy to get him into our system now,” said Nelson Emerson from the Kings’ Player Development group. “He’s a big, strong winger. Once the puck gets into the offensive zone, that’s when you see his assets come into play. He’s very strong along the boards. He wins the majority of his puck battles and when he’s in front of the net is when he becomes a real factor because he has a real touch and a real knack in that scoring area.”
Now, Mersch turns his attention to improving his skating, among other things, where the Kings believe he can gain a half to full step moving forward.
“I think the opportunity is there,” Mersch remarked. “If you’re willing to put the work into it, which I am, I think I have an opportunity to do that. The AHL game is going to be a little bit quicker; it’s the best college guys and the best junior guys around. The transition game is going to be quicker, going from offense to defense and defense to offense. I'm dedicated to improving and any help I can get, I’ll take.”
Right now, it’s his life that is in transition, not just the action on the ice. In less than a week he went from being a student-athlete and taking part in the college hockey playoffs to signing a pro contract and living in a hotel in Manchester.
“It’s an emotional time, that’s for sure,” he admitted. “When you leave after your senior year, you’ve been together with the same guys for so long, it’s tough. You’re focused on them and then all of a sudden you have to jump ship, so it’s definitely a strange feeling that’s for sure. On one hand, you’re excited about the next opportunity in your life, [balanced with] leaving a place that you’ve loved for four years. I tried to think about all the good things that I've had in the past, and at the same time focus on the opportunity waiting ahead.”
He certainly built plenty of memories over his four years at the legendary campus in Madison, yet a few of the big ones naturally rise to the surface when reflecting back – like the WCHA Championship they won his junior year.
“The first two years, we really didn’t win anything or have such a great record, and then we started our third year 1-7-2, so we were really nervous,” shared Mersch. “We knew there were higher expectations to meet, with athletics being such a big part of the University of Wisconsin. When we were able to come through and have a good second half and top it off with a WCHA Tournament Championship, it taught me how to win, so I think that’s the one thing that sticks out to me the most.”
Maturation also took place along the way, although Mersch’s growth as a player is still a work in progress.
“It starts with my skating, I think I've gotten a little more comfortable with it and stronger on my feet,” he said. “I may not be the fastest player out there or the most dynamic either, but I've gotten stronger on my skates and staying up on my feet a little more. I play below the dots, and being around the net more, you learn things as you go on to become a contributor down below the dots in the offensive zone.”
Drafted as a left wing, Mersch has played both sides. Of course, he’ll play wherever the team wants him – and whichever position gives him the best shot at someday making the NHL. Yet, there are the natural preferences for one side over the other.
“I'm just going to work my hardest and stay focused, and when the opportunity comes I'm going to be willing to accept the challenge. Whatever they have planned for me, I’m sure it’s right and I’m going to stick to the process. At Wisconsin, I played my off-hand, but I think everyone’s just more comfortable on their strong side. Obviously I’d prefer left wing, as a right-handed guy would prefer right wing, just because you get up the ice a little bit more on breakouts. I have a good work ethic though. It’s just part of my nature. I realize that there are areas you can always improve in and I'm looking to improve in those areas.”
Putting any positional question to rest for the short term, Emerson was clear when asked about how Mersch will be used during the initial part of his pro career.
“We’d like to see him start at the left wing position because that’s where he’ll be at his best,” he said. “He’ll play there as long as there’s room in Manchester, but the positive is that he plays both sides and being able to do that as a forward is an advantage.”
After his pro debut on Friday, Monarchs coach Mark Morris had a few encouraging words regarding what Mersch was able to offer the team.
“I was encouraged. There are some good qualities there, but it is a fast pace and it is going to take an adjustment period,” began the veteran coach. “Mersch did a great job up ice pressuring the puck. He created some scoring chances because of his tenacity.”
Whatever the future holds for Mersch, his eyes are wide open and he’s looking forward to things slowly starting to settle down in the days ahead.
“There are a lot of unknown factors right now,” he said with a short laugh. “Getting into the hotel, figuring out where I was going to be living, figuring out contracts and stuff - just a lot of unknowns that I've never had to deal with before. There are also new teammates, and learning about them and becoming friends with them. The unknown factor in general is the most nerve-racking.”
Put him on the ice though and Mersch is bound to find the back of the net. Then, for this promising young prospect, life becomes normal once again.