NEWARK, N.J. -- There's no doubt defenseman Jon Merrill has all the tools necessary to one day become a steady force along the blue line for the New Jersey Devils.
That's precisely why the organization selected the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder -- born in Oklahoma City and raised in Michigan -- in the second round (No. 38) of the 2010 NHL Draft. His poise off the transition, ability to quarterback a power play and consistency in killing penalties are areas in which the Devils could certainly benefit.
The only thing seemingly hanging over Merrill's head at this stage in his hockey career is his maturity. As a freshman at the University of Michigan in 2010-11, Merrill led all Wolverines defensemen in points (25), assists (18) and blocked shots (70), helping lead the team to the 2011 NCAA National Championship game.
Jon Merrill's poise off the transition, ability to quarterback a power play and consistency in killing penalties are areas in which the Devils could benefit. (Photo: Eric Marin, NJ Devils)
This past season wasn't quite as memorable, however, as Merrill was suspended for part of the season by the university for an unspecified violation of team rules.
"I think it was time where I made mistakes and had to deal with them and learn from them and move forward," Merrill said. "I'm happy where I'm at now."
Merrill is one of the many top prospects taking part in this week's development camp for the Devils at AmeriHealth Pavilion.
Asked about last year's suspension of his top defensive prospect, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn't too concerned.
"I have [no concerns] whatsoever," Lamoriello said. "I haven't even thought about it since you asked the question right now. As far as I'm concerned, whatever happens in the past, is the past. Just go forward."
With the suspension behind him, the big question is whether or not Merrill will return to Michigan for his junior year or decide to turn pro and spend the 2012-13 campaign with the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany. After all, many feel he is the organization's top defensive prospect.
Merrill gave the impression he is leaning toward returning to school.
"I don't know … I'm focusing on this week and we'll see what happens," he said. "I'm just here to enjoy the week right now. I'm committed to school right now, so that's where I'm at.
"I think everyone involved in the process is on the same page and it's not going to be any surprises for anyone [when a decision is made]."
Before his suspension was lifted on Jan. 6, Merrill did represent the U.S. National Junior Team at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Calgary, producing four assists in six games. The Americans finished a disappointing seventh.
He produced two goals, 11 points and a plus-11 rating in 19 games as a sophomore for Michigan but the fact he lost half a season of development due to off-ice issues begs the question: Is he really mentally ready to turn professional?
"I'm happy with the way my game has developed. Everything they do at Michigan, I stand by, and have no complaints. If I go back to school, I can develop in a great university and if I leave, I'm in a great organization like New Jersey; so it's a win-win."
-- Devils' prospect Jon Merrill
"I'm happy with the way my game has developed," Merrill said. "Everything they do at Michigan, I stand by, and have no complaints. If I go back to school, I can develop in a great university and if I leave, I'm in a great organization like New Jersey, so it's a win-win."
Michigan coach Red Berenson has traditionally encouraged players to remain in school rather than sign minor-league contracts. The Devils don't seem to be pressing Merrill on the issue.
"It's undecided right now," Lamoriello said. "He's here for the week and we'll sit down at the end of the week."
For now, Merrill is just concerned with what he needs to do to improve both on and off the ice.
"Right now I'm focused on what I do at school and what I'm doing here this week and things that I can't control, I don't focus on," Merrill said. "I'm taking it day by day and doing the best I can to control what I can control. Then, the people that have to make decisions will make them."
One thing is certain, Merrill's ability on the power play would certainly be a welcomed addition whenever he is ready to make the transition to the pro game.
"It's something I enjoy doing, playing on the PP and being one of those guys who is looked to by the coaching staff to come through on the PP in the clutch … make things happen," he said.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale