On paper, the Reign have gone 2-2-0-0 without their top left winger Michael Mersch. His absence though due to a knee injury has created an expected predicament head coach Mike Stothers.
“As you guys know, replacing Mike Mersch is not an easy thing to do,” Stothers said to the media last weekend. “It’s unfair to ask anybody to fill that role for us.”
But someone has to, at least logistically on the left side on the top line with veterans T.J. Hensick and Teddy Purcell.
Stothers has tried Adrian Kempe there but — “I’ve liked Kempe in the middle more than I’ve liked him on the wing … I think he’s more of a threat in the middle of the ice.”
He’s tried right winger Jonny Brodzinski there but — “I had talked to Brodz and he said he was willing to try the left side. It’s not always easy to play your off wing. … Brodz maybe is a little more comfortable on the right side.”
For the last two games now that vacancy has been filled instead by Sean Backman, a right winger and former All-Star who said he’s never played his off wing for this organization but did a bit earlier in his career. Stothers joked that Backman and Mersch have similar styles – “heavy play, a lot of wall work” — but it’s known that Backman, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound speedster is nothing like the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Mersch, who was leading the team in goals with 10 when he went down on Jan. 14.
“I just got to pick my spots on when to be fast and when to find those open spaces because those are two guys that are going to get you the puck,” Backman said. “A big thing playing with Teddy and [T.J.] there is finding that open ice and being ready for the puck because they’re going to find ya. It’s a great opportunity for me and they’re two great players.”
“He’s a big part of our team, no doubt,” Backman said of Mersch. “He’s strong in all three zones so filling that missing spot for him, it’s tough. Right now we have what we think is a good line combo. We’ll see how it goes from here. Only time will tell.”
Stothers may have been long-winded in his reasoning of why he’s landed on Backman in that role, but every word is of importance to understanding the circumstance and what the team is facing.
“Well, surprising enough you would think that it would just be easy to find somebody to play with Henner and Teddy and it’s not. I’m not comparing either one of them Henner or Teddy to Sidney Crosby but everybody says it’s hard to play with Sidney Crosby because they’re just different. They see the game differently, you’ve got to try to find a fit,” he said.
“Mike was a good fit because he was a guy that was able to get in there, muck it up, create turnovers or win those wall battles and get the puck to those guys. But with Backs it’s a little bit different in the fact that his speed is a different factor for the team defending. He causes a lot of loose pucks or turnovers because of his speed and getting in on the forecheck. Also, he’s a pure sniper so you know that Teddy like to pass, Henner likes to pass. Backs is really gifted at getting the puck off, one-timers, he gets it off in a hurry. It actually benefits him coming down that off wing and being able to get some pucks and being able to be a complementary shooter with a couple guys that like to be playmakers. So, I’ve liked it. I really have liked it. They’re good experienced guys. They’re good veteran guys.
“It also can be a little bit intimidating for a younger guy to step in and play with Teddy and Henner. I keep emphasizing and harping to our guys, they get passes from Teddy that they’re not even ready for because they don’t even think Teddy can find them. Well, Backs is going to be ready because he wants that puck. He wants to shoot it. I think it’s good and it actually adds speed to a line that likes to slow it down a little bit.”
Mersch is now projected for a mid-to-late February return so long as all rehab and recovery goes according to plan. Life without him isn’t just a top-line issue, it’s a full 60-minutes issue. Mersch was also an alternate captain, a role that’s been assumed and fittingly so by Brett Sutter.
“It’s always tough to have Mike out because he’s a really important player for us in all situations,” Kempe said. “That’s tough.”
With Backman — for now — filling the top slot, there’s still ice to be had in other areas. For younger players like Kempe, Brodzinski and Justin Auger this injury also means a chance for more ice time in the crucial parts of the games.
“I’d say it’s more of an opportunity,” said Auger, who mentioned it’s nice to just see Mersch still around the facility. “Obviously it just means there’s more ice time, more power play and everything to have so I think just the biggest thing is taking advantage of it and really just stepping up and trying to do your best to fill in that missing role.”
“We just have to find a way to keep winning games,” Auger said.