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Merrill a rock on defense for Team USA

by Mike G. Morreale
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Defenseman Jonathan Merrill isn't the most outspoken individual -- he prefers to do most of his talking on the ice. U.S. National Junior Team coach Keith Allain has taken notice during the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"Jon has been a rock for us," Allain said. "I think he's really played better each game we've had him … through our exhibition schedule series and now three games into the tournament. Quietly, he's a leader by his presence, so we're really pleased with what he's done so far."
When pressed to provide any insight into Merrill's demeanor within the locker room or around the coach, Allain shook his head and laughed.

"I'm sorry, I have no little Merrill stories," he said.
Not even Merrill can't determine how or even when his personality took shape.
"I don't know, it kind of comes from myself," Merrill told "I don't think any of my parents are like that at all, actually, I think my mindset came along when I was little. I kind of take life as it comes to me, I guess."
Merrill is one of two players on the U.S. roster currently starring at the University of Michigan -- forward Chris Brown is the other. The big defenseman leads the freshman class in scoring with 11 points, including 3 goals.
"Once you get to know him, he begins to open up," Brown said. "When he starts feeling more comfortable with the people he's around, like friends or teammates, he's open. He's a focused kid, and in a tournament like this you have to remain focused. He's funny when he wants to be, but he's a little reserved at times. But that's him -- it's how he goes about his business."
That business-like approach is what motivated the New Jersey Devils to select him in the second round (No. 38) of the 2010 Entry Draft, and it's what has allowed the 6-foot-3, 198-pound product of Brighton, Mich., to join with team captain John Ramage to form Team USA's lock-down defense pairing through three games at the WJC.
"I think his calm demeanor reflects how he plays, too," Ramage said. "He's kind of a goofy kid and a good guy to be around. He's a two-way defenseman who has a lot of offensive abilities, and is also very good defensively, so he makes it very easy to play with."
Merrill, who is playing in his first WJC, is tied for the team lead with 3 assists, leads U.S. defensemen with 4 points and is a plus-1; Ramage sports a plus-2 rating.
"It's exciting to put on that USA jersey and represent your country, especially on a big stage like this because it means so much," Merrill said. "I still remember pre-camp as if it were yesterday because everyone is so uptight and tense … kind of on edge those first few exhibition games. But it's good for the team to have to compete and earn these things. Nothing is given to you."
Having success on an international level is nothing new to Merrill, who was named one of his team's best three players in Team USA's gold medal-winning effort at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship in Belarus.
"He's a special player, has great vision, great hands," Brown said. "He also has that hockey sense, and when you combine all those things and put a physical aspect to it, you get Jon."
Merrill also participated at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, producing 3 assists in seven games against teams from Finland and Sweden. Wherever he's played, Merrill has been a solid defensive contributor and has provided a little offense to boot.
"I try to be smart, starting with defense in my own end, and if I see an opportunity, jump up in the rush," Merrill said. "I'll jump up and pick my spots, and luckily I've had some success, so that's great."
Brown feels fortunate to have Merrill as a teammate in this tournament and at Michigan, since it's almost impossible to beat the guy in practice.
"He's just so smart with the puck … and the plays he makes," Brown said. "He controls the game and controls what the other team needs to do to defend him. It's so hard, even in practice, because his stick is that good. When you're going down 1-on-1 against him, his position to the net is amazing."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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