-- The path of least resistance for Jon Merrill would have been simple -- leave the University of Michigan and continue his hockey career in the Ontario Hockey League.
It wouldn't have been a big move. The Plymouth Whalers held his OHL rights, and they are based about 20 miles east of Ann Arbor, Mich.
Merrill, a second-round pick by the New Jersey Devils
in the 2010 Entry Draft, was suspended for the first 12 games of the 2011-12 season at Michigan at the time he had to make his decision. He chose to stay.
"I love my teammates and the University of Michigan, the coaching staff," Merrill said. "I love everything about it. There was just a huge part of me that told me it was the right thing to do to stay. I stuck with it and I'm happy I made that decision."
Michigan heads back indoors to face UND
Michael Blinn - NHL.com Staff Writer
Michigan (14-8-4) vs. Notre Dame (13-8-3) Friday, 7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network READ MORE ›
Eventually, Merrill's suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules was changed to "indefinite." He continued to work to get back in the good favor of his coach Red Berenson
, and after sitting out the first 22 games of the season the suspension was lifted.
"He's done everything we asked him to do, all through thick and thin," Berenson said. "He wanted to stay at Michigan. He could have walked away easily, but he's stayed and gutted it out and paid the price and now he's back on good terms. We need him as a player, but rules are not different for any player no matter who you are. He made a mistake and paid his dues and that's over."
Now that it is, Merrill is back with the Wolverines and it isn't a coincidence that they are starting to look like a team that could contend for a spot in the Frozen Four again this season.
Michigan lost to Minnesota-Duluth in overtime in the championship game last season, and, after a slow start, the Wolverines have climbed to third place in the CCHA standings and are 3-0-1 since Merrill returned.
Two of those wins came this past weekend on the road against rival Ohio State. This weekend Merrill and the Wolverines are at Notre Dame, and their contest Friday night will be aired nationally on NBC Sports Network.
While Merrill has only played in the team's past four contests, he did have the benefit of some extra game action before rejoining the lineup. Despite not playing at the start of the season, he was still selected for the United States team in the 2012 World Junior Championships in Alberta.
"I was kind of expecting a little bit of rust, but I didn't feel like there was much," Merrill said. "I was pretty happy with how I played up there. I think that helped me come back and get ready to play college hockey. I didn't know I was going to be playing when I got back, but I found out I was and I felt like I was more prepared for it because I had played up there."
Merrill, who will turn 20 next month, had a fantastic freshman season for the Wolverines. He had seven goals, 25 assists and 70 blocked shots, and become the first freshman defenseman to eclipse 20 points since Jack Johnson
five years prior.
He racked up plenty of postseason accolades, as well. At 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds, Merrill is big and strong on his skates but the thing that sticks out most about his game is how smooth and calm he seems to always be..
Merrill is a gifted passer, and he's able to control the game on the breakout and on the power play by making strong decisions.
"He's got an NHL hockey IQ, so when he gets the puck he knows what to do with it," Berenson said. "He doesn't beat you with speed or anything else. He's like Nick Lidstrom."
Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki
, who has coached Merrill before in international play, said after Michigan's 4-0 win Sunday in Cleveland at the Frozen Diamond Faceoff he thinks Merrill is the best defenseman in the country. Pretty high praise for a guy who has only played four NCAA games this season, but Merrill is certainly one of the top NHL prospects in college hockey.
He's also the top prospect for the Devils, and could be another nice addition to their blue line to go with rookie Adam Larsson
"That would be awesome. That's down the road, I think," Merrill said. "I don't know when it is going to happen, but that would be special. I was really fortunate to be drafted by that organization. They've been supportive with everything I've gone through. I couldn't ask for anything better.
"I feel good about how I'm playing. I think I can always get better. I can get bigger and stronger off the ice by working a little bit harder, but on the ice I think I'm happy with how I'm progressing and it can only get better from here."