Like most coaches, Idaho Steelheads coach Neil Graham likes to tinker with lineups.
But there is one hockey line that has been hard to break up this season.
“Game one of the season, a combination we tried was Will Merchant, Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer,” Graham said. “I think we’ve strayed from it … periodically for sparks, here and there.”
But for the most part, the trio has been a constant on the ice together.
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“When you find the chemistry they have, I don’t want to break it up,” Graham said. “We’ll try different combinations from time to time with that line combo, but more often than not, we keep going back to it. I can rely on them to pretty much give that same effort, whether it’s the first game of the week or the third game of the week.”
Dahl, the team’s captain, is in his third season with the Steelheads. He has a team-high 27 assists in 42 games. Linsmayer, an assistant captain, has played with Idaho in five different seasons and leads the team in games played in a Steelheads sweater. He has eight goals and 21 assists in 39 games this season.
Then there’s Merchant, a rookie who played four seasons at the University of Maine.
Turns out, Merchant can hold his own with his more experienced linemates. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward has seven goals and 15 points in his past 13 games. He leads all ECHL rookies with eight power-play goals and 16 power-play points. Overall, he has tallied 14 goals and 18 assists in 43 games.
“He’s come into his own,” Linsmayer said. “He’s hot right now, so we’re trying to get pucks to him and hopefully he’ll keep it rolling.”
Added Graham: “Will, even from early on, has taken his opportunity and made the most of it. He’s as good as any player in this league right now.”
Merchant admits his confidence level has grown all season.
“The first third of the season is all new to us rookies,” Merchant said. “But you get used to it, and (Dahl and Linsmayer) really helped me out. They just calmed me down and let me know what’s going on. … Jefferson is a great captain and very vocal. When things get interesting and it gets a little hectic out there, he’s the first one to calm everyone down.”
Having that steady-handed influence has been the perfect recipe for success for Merchant.
“Whenever you play with the same guys for a majority of the season, it helps out,” Merchant said. “I think we’ve definitely developed some chemistry and are playing well together right now.”
Idaho ranks fourth in the ECHL in power-play percentage (22.6 percent), and Graham said Merchant deserves credit.
“He’s a big reason for the success of our power play,” he said. “And he’s a young guy. He just turned 23 last month. … I think he has a very high ceiling and a very bright future in professional hockey.”
Every rookie comes into the ECHL hoping to prove they belong. Merchant can check that accomplishment of his list.
“Your first season you kind of want to make a name for yourself a little bit,” Merchant said. “I think I’ve been doing that.”
STEELHEADS HOME FOR SIX GAMES
▪ Who: Utah (20-19-4) at Idaho (24-14-6)
▪ When: 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
▪ Where: CenturyLink Arena, Downtown Boise
▪ Radio/TV: KTIK 1350 AM/Cable One Channel 72
▪ Tickets: At the CenturyLink box office, at IdahoSteelheads.com or by calling 331-8497.
▪ Notes: Utah enters the series as the hottest team in the Mountain Division. The Grizzlies have gone 7-2-1 in their past 10 games. Six of Idaho’s next nine games are against Utah. … Idaho hosts Wheeling of the Eastern Conference for three games next week.