Auditions are coming to a close in Las Vegas after over two weeks of training camp have proved eventful and left many wondering what the final Kings roster will look like. For the first time out of any Los Angeles camps of recent memory, roster spots have been on the table for the taking. It makes turning the perceived pressure into positive play on the ice all the more important.
The process has been a ride for many but in particular for winger Michael Mersch and center Nic Dowd, two forwards with one specific commonality: they made their NHL debuts a season ago and are pushing for full-time jobs for the first time.
“I think there’s opportunity to be had. It’s important to know that and take advantage of it,” Dowd said.
Added Mersch: “Every day has been a chance to make a statement so I’ve tried to do one thing or another, look at the positive things I’ve done and try to build on that kind of stuff so I’m just going to keep doing that.”
In Friday’s second-to-last preseason game, a 6-3 loss to the Dallas Stars, both Mersch and Dowd scored: Mersch from his home base in front of the net on a deflection to open the scoring, Dowd jumping to the slot and roofing a wrister in the third period.
In these moments, bearing down on those chances becomes more crucial. They’ve been competing with other forwards but now more opportunity is there than originally anticipated considering Tanner Pearson’s suspension will put him out of the first two games, and Nick Shore and Marian Gaborik out due to injury.
“It’s tough,” Mersch said of the training camp experience. “I think you just have to focus. I’ve been focusing day-to-day, every day at the rink, just do whatever I’ve got to do to get ready and act as if every practice is a game, every pregame skate is a game. So, just all that type of stuff because you’ve got to be sharp at all times.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter commended Mersch in a roundabout way after the game. It’s no secret to anyone that Mersch, who had a team-high 24 goals with the Ontario Reign last season, can finish around the net.
“It’s pretty normal for him,” Sutter said. “He didn’t do anything different than he normally does.”
Dowd and Mersch have followed similar paths. They’re American-born players who took the collegiate path. Two seasons ago in Manchester they lifted the Calder Cup. Last season with the Reign they were far and away the team’s biggest weapons – 200-foot players who played in every situation and often together. On the ice though, their styles are much different. Mersch does his best work below the offensive zone dots on the forecheck and in front of the net but continues to work on his speed and transition skating, which he says he thinks has “gotten a lot better.” As a centerman Dowd prides himself on being strong in the circle, something that he found success with at the AHL level. His play-making style often made him a pass-first player in Ontario until he was pushed by head coach Mike Stothers to shoot more, resulting in 14 goals, four of those in the final month and a half of the season. This preseason he leads the Kings with three goals.
Last season Mersch was the first forward call-up to Los Angeles and Dowd followed. That experience alone has helped to this day.
“I wouldn’t say so much nerves anymore,” said Mersch, who sounds like he’s moved past the uncomfortable transition phase after playing in 17 NHL games last season. “Maybe when I was playing my first game, that was more nerves. Now it’s when you get more comfortable and it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself and go out there and do it.”