Ryan Merkley is back where he belongs after showing he may not be as far away from the pros as we thought.
The 18-year-old defenseman made his Guelph Storm season debut over the weekend after an extended stay in San Jose that saw him remain as one of the final nine players at his position in his first NHL training camp.
Merkley was able to get a nice taste of the next level, and is now expected to step things up as a leader back in Guelph. If his first two games are any indication, he’s hungry to prove the Sharks right for the faith displayed and time invested in him to date, but he may also need some time to catch his breath.
Where He’s Been
First, let’s take a step back and assess why Merkley was late coming back to his junior club. Indeed, many were surprised that Merkley remained with the Sharks for so long, surviving a number of cuts while missing the opening week of the OHL schedule.
Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman briefly addressed it on the September 27 edition of the 31 Thoughts podcast (around the 17 minute mark) after discussing the recent Erik Karlsson trade. My personal contention was the Sharks wanted Merkley to soak in all he could from San Jose’s veterans on the blue line — namely Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Karlsson, a late comer to camp — before returning him to Guelph.
Sounds about right, according to Friedman:
Marek: Are you surprised Ryan Merkley is still there?
Friedman: I am a little bit surprised simply because we thought he would have been back in junior by now.
Marek: They’re giving this guy every single chance. What did we say at the Draft in Dallas? He’s got top-5 skill.
Friedman: But I think also what they’re trying to do is they want him around their guys. What were all the knocks on him? He’s not professional, right?
Marek: Selfish, bad teammate, all that.
Friedman: So he’s going to be around a lot of guys who are different guys, but they find a common bond.
Merkley even spent part of his time in San Jose living with Burns, which was designed to the experience all the more memorable.
“We had (Merkley) stay with (Burns during July’s rookie camp), and he couldn’t believe it,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said, according to Marcus White of NBC Sports. “(Seeing) everything he eats, how he trains. For an 18-year-old kid to see a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and that’s what he does? You go back to junior and remember what you just learned.”
The time spent with Burns and his family clearly made an impact, and even Merkley was pleasantly surprised about sticking around for so long.
”It was just really cool to hang out and see how he goes about his daily routine,’ Merkley told Tony Saxon of Guelph Today. “It was just a great camp, skating with all those guys, practicing with them and getting to meet them for the first time. It was exciting.”
“I was surprised for sure (playing so much in the exhibition season),” he added. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect to play so much for a young guy coming in.”
Merkley appeared in three preseason games for the Sharks, recording one secondary assist on the power play. The young defenseman was tripped by Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk to draw the man advantage, and the resulting assist encapsulated what Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer is looking for from Merkley moving forward.
“That’s how he has to handle the adversity of the game and guys doing that. He got up and got ready for the power play and we scored on the power play,” DeBoer said, per Curtis Pashelka of The Mercury News. “That’s part of being a pro and maturing and recognizing that people are going to give you extra attention, and how do you react to that. I thought his reaction was perfect.”
It’s pretty clear what both the Sharks and Storm coach and general manager George Burnett are looking for Merkley to continue to grow, mature and excel in 2018-19.
”I expect him to be amongst the elite, if not the elite defenseman in the (OHL) and I think he expects that of himself,” Burnett told Saxon. ”I know it’s been a very valuable learning experience for him the last number of months .... there’s a plan there and they (San Jose) were thrilled with his progress.”
Burnett must be equally thrilled to have Merkley back, especially after the Storm limped out to a 0-1-1 start without him.
In a Friday night 6-2 victory over an Owen Sound Attack team that features OHL-leading scorer Nick Suzuki, Merkley recorded an even strength secondary assist and impressed in his own zone as well.
Ryan Merkley races back to break up a potential breakaway then 10 seconds later blocks a shot.— Tony Saxon (@SaxonOnTheStorm) September 29, 2018
On Saturday, the Storm visited the Saginaw Spirit. The game appeared well in hand with Guelph up 5-0 late in the second period, only to see Saginaw tie things up over the final 24 minutes and force overtime, where the Storm prevailed.
Merkley recorded another secondary assist in this one, coming on a power play goal scored by Cedric Ralph. He did also, however, cough up the puck late in the third, leading directly to the tying goal.
Altogether, Merkley recorded the two secondary assists in his first two games of the OHL season, as well as a pair of low danger shots, according to Prospect Stats.
In fairness, Merkley had a busy September and was maybe dealing with a touch of rust following a cross-continent flight last Thursday followed by a pair of games over the following two days.
What that whirlwind now behind him, expect Merkley to settle in and get down to living up to the expectations placed on him by Burnett over the rest of the season.
Up next for Guelph:
vs. Sarnia — Friday, Oct. 5
at Flint — Saturday, Oct. 6