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Storm Watch: Merkley now leading junior club in scoring

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Jun 22, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Ryan Merkley poses for a photo with team representatives after being selected as the number twenty-one overall pick to the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Guelph Storm defenseman Ryan Merkley is bringing the reign in the Royal City.

Not only is the 18-year-old leading all OHL defencemen with 29 points, Merkley has also overtaken the team lead in scoring, for the time being at least. This after racking up four assists over his past two games, bringing his helper total to 25 to compliment his four goals.

The only other defenseman to lead his team in scoring at the moment is Declan Chisolm of the Peterborough Petes, who has 23 points in 20 games after being selected in the fifth round by the Winnipeg Jets this past June.

It should be added that previous leading scorer Nate Schnarr has missed the past few games due to injury, but Merkley’s 1.45 point per game average is no less impressive.

The Storm’s Week That Was

Merkley’s latest point came in a huge, nationally-televised game against the London Knights on Saturday. If you look closely at the beginning of this clip, you can see Merkley in the far corner of his own zone after having found Barret Kirwin with the cross-ice outlet pass that the latter converted for a goal.

Guelph held that 1-0 lead until 17:08 of the third period against first-place London, and the Knights went on to prevail 2-1 in a shootout, giving the Storm a league-high third loss in that decisive skills competition, along with three overtime losses. In fact, Guelph has scored on just two of 16 shootout opportunities this season, and head coach and general manager George Burnett might want to devote more practice time here.

“I like the way we played, but we’ve got to figure out the overtime and the shootout,” Burnett said, per Tony Saxon of Guelph Today. “I would say that we don’t do a lot of (practicing shootouts), but we’re going to do a lot more of it. I really just want to encourage the guys that when they go in there (on the shootout) to make a hard play, make a hard decision. If you’re shooting, shoot it hard. If you’re making a deke, do it hard.”

With the loss, Guelph sits four points back of London and one point back of the Owen Sound Attack in the Midwest Division. That they were able to hang with the traditional powerhouse was encouraging, but the dropped point wasn’t lost on captain Isaac Ratcliffe.

“They’re a fast team, probably the best team were going to face this year, but we shut them down until that one goal late in the third,” he said. ”We’re happy with our effort. Big games like this against strong teams really call on everyone ... unfortunately we just came up a little short.”

As for the rest of the week, Guelph piled on the Flint Firebirds (with an abysmal 2-20-1 record) by a score of 8-2, a game in which Merkley racked up a trio of assists, two of which were primary in nature. Prior to that, Guelph lost 4-1 to the Mississauga Steelheads in a “school day” 11 a.m. start, and Merkley failed to record a point in that meeting.

Merkley’s Updated Stats

As mentioned, Merkley now sits on 4 goals and 25 assists for a total of 29 points in 20 games. He also leads all defensemen in primary points in all situations with 17, is in a tie for first in power play points from the blue line with 12, and ranks second in primary points in 5-on-5 play with 9. Needless to say, Merkley is establishing himself as the elite of the elite when it comes to scoring by a defenseman this season.

While there’s not much, if anything, out there in the way of OHL possession stats, even the most traditional of pundits can point to Merkley’s plus-1 rating and see that his defensive game has tightened up somewhat. He’s no shutdown specialist and never will be, but he regularly gets the puck out of his zone, leads the attack and makes plays.

Merkley is still averaging only 1.7 shots on goal per game, well below his averages of 2.3 and 2.5 in each of the past two seasons. There’s a measure of responsibility and growth that can be seen here, though. Sure, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, but he recognizes the smart play and finds his talented forwards in prime spots to score.

Look, it’s been said in this space before and will probably be reiterated all season: Merkley is not a perfect defenseman nor a finished product by any means, but he’s displaying a different level to his game and is making positive strides all over the ice, and that’s exactly what the brass in Guelph and San Jose — and maybe Hockey Canada, as well — want to see.

Up Next:

Friday, Nov. 23 vs. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Saturday, Nov. 24 @ Barrie Colts
Sunday, Nov. 25 @ Brampton Battalion

Bonus Footage

This has nothing to do with Merkley, but this pass from Cam Hillis to Ratcliffe during the game against Flint is too good not to share as much as possible: