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Storm Watch: Merkley traded, for Pete’s sake

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USA Today / Fear the Fin Illustration by JD Young

The Ryan Merkley era in Guelph is over.

Full disclosure: The news that Merkley had been traded by Guelph Storm to the Peterborough Petes prior to Friday’s game between the two clubs caught me off guard.

Fuller disclosure: I missed the initial announcement because I was watching new episodes of Fuller House on Netflix with my kids.

But here we are a few days later, breaking down a trade involving the OHL’s top-scoring defenseman and outright leader in assists per game, and still wondering whether the baby that Kimmy Gibbler is carrying for Stephanie Tanner is a boy or a girl (no spoilers please).

What’s the deal?

In exchange for the 18-year-old defenseman, Guelph acquired forward Pavel Gogolev and a bunch of draft picks:

  • Peterborough’s compensatory 2nd round pick in 2019
  • Windsor’s 3rd round pick in 2021
  • Peterborough’s 4th round pick in 2022 (conditional)
  • Peterborough’s 2nd round pick in 2023 (conditional)
  • Peterborough’s 3rd round pick in 2024 (conditional)

Guelph gets those bottom three picks if Merkley plays in the OHL next season, by the way.

Both Gogolev and Merkley were picked in the first round of the OHL’s Priority Selection; the latter with the first overall pick, the former with the sixth. Unlike Merkley, however, Gogolev went undrafted in the NHL’s 2018 selection process.

He did score 30 goals in 66 games for the Petes last season, and recorded seven goals and 12 assists in 29 games this season prior to the trade to Guelph.

But what’s the deal with this deal?

The bigger question, of course, is why this trade happened.

From Peterborough’s perspective, Merkley obviously brings some spark to the Electric City. The Petes needed an upgrade on the blue line, someone who could kick start a 20th-ranked power play and help the middling team compete with the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

“He’s an elite offensive defenseman and we know we’ve needed that from the start of the year,” Petes coach Rob Wilson told the Peterborough Examiner. “He’s a two-year player for us. We’re excited about getting a player of that calibre. There is no question he is a power play defenseman and we know we’ve needed a player like that. He brings 2 1/2 years of experience in our league. He’s been to NHL camps. He’s got Hockey Canada experience. There is a lot to the package.”

A couple things here. Wilson appears to be assuming Merkley won’t make the jump to the Sharks next season, despite his extended training camp experience this past September, and his well above average offensive production to date. He also cites Merkley’s Hockey Canada experience, which includes a Hlinka Memorial gold medal (under-18 international tournament), but also an omission from this year’s World Junior selection camp (a decision that was broken down here).

Wilson is taking the “glass half full” approach, then, despite the constant knocks on Merkley, namely his defensive game and maturity issues.

“He looks very competitive to me,” Wilson continued. “We all have knocks against us. I think he’s a very good offensive player and his skill set is needed for our team. Like anybody he has things to work on and his might be the defensive side of the game or it might not be. Those are things I’ll have a better idea on once he’s played 10 or 15 games for us.”

For his part, Merkley is embracing the move.

“When I talked to (Wilson), he said he likes to play an offensive style of game and play with the puck. I’m excited for that,” he told the Examiner.

As for his game, Merkley believes he’s taking it to the next level, with his goal of being a Shark always in mind.

“I know that was one of the knocks on me in my draft year and if I wanted to move onto the pros eventually I had to be better in that area,” Merkley said, referring to his apparent defensive deficiencies. “I think I’m showing strides. The past two years I went from -41 to -29 and this year I’m +5 so I think I’m doing a better job, for sure. There is room to grow and improve, obviously, but I just take it day by day.”

Addition by subtraction then addition

From Guelph’s point of view, this deal is more of a message being sent to the remaining players than a sign of an impending fire sale, and a very strong message at that.

There’s no question Merkley was a polarizing figure, and while general manager George Burnett said there was no trade request made by the 18-year-old, there was a sense that his act was wearing thin and a change would do both sides some good.

“There was no demand (for a trade). I’d like to think that maybe it was a little bit mutual, but we talked about it and we felt that this was the right thing to do for us at this time,” Burnett told Tony Saxon of Guelph Today, adding talks with Peterborough had been going on and off for a few weeks. “We understand Ryan is a tremendous young talent and he’s been an elite player here for two and a half years. But I guess I look at it as maybe a different voice is helpful to him moving forward.”

Speaking of voices, Nate Schnarr — an Arizona Coyotes prospect and Guelph’s leading scorer — stepped up as a calming presence in the locker room in the absence of team captain Isaac Ratcliffe, who was on his way back to Guelph after being cut from Canada’s World Junior team.

Schnarr said there was a team meeting following the trade announcement to calm everyone down, and to make sure nobody thinks losing Merkley means Guelph is throwing in the towel.

“Obviously (we) want to be a competitive team. We’ve got to make it obvious to management that we believe we have a group in there that can compete every game and can compete against every team in the league,” Schnarr said. ”It’s up to us at the end of the day. We have to show that we have a competitive enough team, because if we’re not showing the right things then it’s tough for them to believe that we can add.”

Adding complimentary pieces prior to the OHL’s Jan. 10 trade deadline appears to be the plan, according to Burnett.

“We have an older group, so I think to suggest that we’re going to be moving a bunch of guys would be wrong. We’d certainly need to add an experienced defenseman to our group and we’d love to be able to do that,” Burnett said Saturday after Guelph’s second win in a row post-Merkley.

For now, the player selected directly after Merkley at the 2016 Priority Selection draft is stepping up for the Storm.

Guelph went on to win three games in three days following the trade, the team’s first weekend trifecta sweep since 2014. The Storm also added more picks in trading Tag Bertuzzi (son of Todd) to Hamilton on Monday, giving Burnett more to potentially flip moving forward.

You like apples, Peterborough?

Still, the Storm will obviously be hard pressed to find a player to match the offensive production Merkley brought to the table.

As mentioned earlier, no player in the league is averaging more assists per game than Merkley, and those passing skills were put to good use in his Petes debut, as he recorded three assists in a win over the first-place Ottawa 67s.

Here’s a look at his handiwork.

That will do.

“We beat the top team in the country so it was a positive, for sure,” Merkley told the Examiner in regards to his Petes debut. “A key role for me and a big area of my game is the power play and to create offensive chances. I guess it worked well today.”

For the season, Merkley is now up to five goals and 37 assists for a total of 42 point in just 29 games. Only Morgan Frost has more helpers (38), and in three more games played to boot.

Good luck in Peterborough and beyond, young Merk.

Up next:

The OHL is now on its holiday break until Dec. 28th.

Thanks for reading, Sharks fans.