A year ago, Michael Mersch was in the stands at the United Center for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final and was there when a puck deflected off Andrew Shaw’s shin pad and past Tuukka Rask in triple overtime. A Chicago native, he grew up a Blackhawks fan but as he departed for school and was ultimately selected in the fourth round by the Kings in 2011, his focus widened away from his hometown team, and more towards the National Hockey League and the team with whom he’ll hope to represent in the coming years.
Judging by a smooth transition from the University of Wisconsin program – where he scored 67 goals in 157 games over four years under former King and Badgers Assistant Coach Gary Shuchuk – there does appear to be a bright future in his continued progression as a sizable forward with terrific instincts around the net.
“He, probably more than anybody, made the easiest transition. I think he’s just got a pro-style game,” said Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Michael Futa, who was there for Mersch’s earliest debut performances with the Manchester Monarchs after his conclusion of his collegiate career. In an 11-game regular season and playoff debut with the Monarchs, Mersch totaled two goals and four points.
“What he does, he’s got that touch around the net that just scores goals at every level,” Futa continued. “The puck seems to fly off his stick and it was pretty neat because it didn’t have to change. His game didn’t have to change. He’s another one where the skating is going to have to improve to make the jump to the next level. But all the stuff he does well in the greasy areas translated great. He’s a guy that will score on rebounds. The puck just seems to find him in the right areas and he was real responsible on the wall. It’s just an adjustment to that level and that speed, I think. A lot of the guys, like when we talk with Tyler and Tanner, the more they’re exposed to this level – and he’ll get exposed to that now that his college ‘don’t talk to me for 48 hours’ rules aren’t in place – the development team…will work with his skating. And he’ll come up and then he’ll start to play at this pace and practice at this pace and all those natural instincts will kick in for him.”
The skating critique followed Mersch around his collegiate career, much as there were questions about Tyler Toffoli’s skating and Tanner Pearson’s skating. It’s not to say that it isn’t an issue to be refined, but skating can continue to be developed with the club’s player development team, as it had been in Wisconsin. Badgers Head Coach Mike Eaves noted the “diligent” work while in Madison to improve his skating in the press release announcing his signing with Los Angeles, while the more innate characteristics he has shown – willingness to work in difficult areas, hand-eye coordination around the net and natural scoring instincts – are aspects that “you can’t teach and it’s so natural for him,” as Futa noted.
“I think some of it is learning from other players and some of it is learning yourself,” Mersch said about his awareness around the net. “During the lockout, at Wisconsin we were lucky enough to have a few pros skating with us during practices and I was able to learn some things from them about sticking around the net and just staying there in regards to not going all over the rink and just kind of planting yourself, because the puck is eventually going to go there. And that’s kind of my mindset. I’ve learned some things from other people and kind of fit them into my game and try to improve them and work on it.”
He’s also got the size that should continue to ease his transition to the professional game.
“He’s a big guy with a real big body that’s going to be hard in the walls,” Futa said. “He’s going to be a Darryl Sutter-type player. And the thing is, he’s just got to find that step, which we have no question that in a year and a half we’re going to be going, ‘Whoever questioned Mike Mersch’s skating?’”
Mersch, on whether he is happy with his transition to professional hockey:
Yeah. I think it was a great experience, first of all. Guys are very welcoming there, especially coming in late in the season as I did and Nic Dowd did and a couple other guys. The transition was good. There is always room for improvement, that’s the game of hockey though. You’re always going to be learning. Overall, it was a great experience.
Mersch, on whether he is satisfied with the improvements he’s made to his skating:
There are still big strides to be made. Like I said, the learning curve in hockey is never ending and you can always keep getting better. I’m going to keep doing the same things I’m doing and add onto with regards to my skating and work hard at other things this summer and keep improving.
Mersch, on the playoff series against Norfolk:
You can see from the game last night that [John Gibson] is a great goaltender. He was tough to beat. We weren’t able to crack him, but obviously it’s tough when you lose in the first round of the playoffs and you’re a number-1 seed. I think next season, as a team in general whether it’s with LA or with Manchester, you want to improve and you want to do well in the playoffs.
Mersch, on his preparation for a full season of professional hockey next year:
I think Wisconsin was great. I had a great four years there. I learned a lot of things about hockey, developed my game. I’m going to keep doing that here. It was good to have the first 12 games under my belt at the end of this season. I really think that was a great experience of getting my feet wet. I think it will help me transition to next year and I’m looking forward to my first year of pro.