ST. PAUL -- Wild coach Dean Evason says it's one of the highest complements any NHLer can receive.
And defenseman Jon Merrill is a perfect example.
Merrill, Evason says, is a true pro.
"He ... skates well. Big, strong. A pro," Evason said. "Whenever a coach says, 'That guy is just a pro,' that's one of the biggest complements in our game. 'That guy is just a pro, he just conducts himself like a pro.' And Jon is that."
Merrill is one of three veteran defensemen competing for two spots in the Opening Night lineup on the Wild's third defensive pairing. No matter who ends up being the odd man out among Merrill, Dmitry Kulikov and Jordie Benn, he will end up seeing plenty of ice time over the course of the season.
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Kulikov would seem to have the inside track on one of those two spots, meaning Merrill and Benn could continually be slugging it out in a friendly competition to see who sees ice time on a given night.
It's a position Merrill says he's just fine being in.
"I mean, I've kind of been in that role for a while now, coming in and out of the lineup and fighting for jobs," Merrill said. "I think when you put your individual goals aside and just look at team success and whatever is best for the team and you come to work every day and put your best foot forward, whatever is right for the team is what you're willing to do ... I think that's the mentality that the three of us have and everyone on this team.
"We're willing to do whatever it takes to have team success, so we're going to continue to compete and work hard and the best man will play."
All three are left-handed defensemen, but one of them will have to play on their off-hand side.
While all three are willing, Merrill and Benn in particular have actually played some of their best hockey on the right-hand side of the pairing.
"I've played a fair amount of both sides," Merrill said. "I'm just excited for any opportunity I have to be on the ice."
That added flexibility is invaluable to Evason and the Wild, who also have right-handed Calen Addison waiting in the wings. But if Merrill and Benn can bring veteran stability to that pairing, and allow Addison additional time to marinate down in Iowa, that could be a good thing for everyone.
"We knew they were both comfortable there," Evason said about Merrill and Benn on the right side. "Yeah, it would be nice to have a righty-lefty, it's a nice, easier pass going D-to-D, making that cross-ice pass. But the best thing when you're playing an off-side and off-wing and an off-side D, is that you're comfortable, you've done it and you know you can do it.
"There's some guys that do it in junior, in college or even in the minors and then. They come here and everything is just a little bit quicker, people are on you faster, so you don't that time to spin away from it. So if you have people who have played at this high a level and feel good about playing that side ... to have our people say to us, 'We'll play wherever,' all three of those guys have done that."
A 29-year-old native of Oklahoma City, Merrill was a second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2010 NHL Draft.
After cracking the Devils lineup for the first time in 2013, Merrill skated in New Jersey for four seasons prior to being selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft in 2017.
Three more seasons with the Knights later, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, Merrill signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings last offseason. He played 36 games with the Wings before being dealt to the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline. He played in 13 games during the regular season, and 13 more in the playoffs, helping Montreal reach the Stanley Cup Final, where it lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That made for a short offseason for Merrill, who signed with Minnesota only a couple of weeks later. But it hasn't taken the former Michigan Wolverine long to get comfortable in his new surroundings.
"I'm extremely excited for [the opportunity]. I think every day in the NHL, I look at it as an opportunity to get better and to play the greatest game in the world at the highest level," Merrill said. "I'm just really fortunate for the opportunity to be here.
"It's a great group of guys, all the way from Billy [Guerin] all the way down the training staff and the equipment guys. Everybody has been really welcoming and friendly and it's been a great transition here to Minnesota."
Photo by Brandon McCauley