Ryan Merkley will be home for the holidays.
The Guelph Storm’s standout defenseman was not among the 34 invitees to Hockey Canada’s selection camp, where the final roster will be selected for the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship in Vancouver and Victoria.
The omission comes despite Merkley’s OHL-leading 1.28 assists per game this season, and as he leads all players at his position with 36 points — good for a share of the eighth-highest point total league-wide — through 25 games.
Still, that offensive prowess wasn’t enough to crack this list of 12 defenseman invited to tryout for the national junior team: Calen Addison (Lethbridge Hurricanes), Nicolas Beaudin (Drummondville Voltigeurs), Jacob Bernard-Docker (North Dakota), Evan Bouchard (London Knights), Josh Brook (Moose Jaw Warriors), Cameron Crotty (Boston University), Noah Dobson (Acadie-Bathurst Titan), Pierre-Olivier Joseph (Charlottetown Islanders), Jared McIsaac (Halifax Mooseheads), Ian Mitchell (Denver), Markus Phillips (Owen Sound Attack) and Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs).
Why not Ryan?
So why didn’t Merkley get invited? It’s a disappointment to be sure, but should not come a shock considering the depth of talent in this country, but also how Hockey Canada tends to lean when constructing their Under-20 roster — or any international roster, for that matter.
They typically rely on mature, responsible and complete players, and while there’s no doubting Merkley’s all-world talent with the puck, his defensive game, and more importantly his maturity, hasn’t grown to the point of affording him the opportunity to be there.
That’s the likely logic behind the decision, at least, and it’s not entirely off base. As good as he is with the puck (and he is damn good, make no mistake), Merkley still tends to show undisciplined tendencies and questionable decision-making skills, and there remains some questions as to how he holds up in the midst of adversity.
Take, for example, the game-winning goal against in this past Friday’s game against the Oshawa Generals. Hockey Canada brass would have been less than inspired watching his effort after getting knocked off the puck in his own end.
There’s no question that Merkley’s game has come a long way since being drafted in the first round by San Jose this past summer, and the extended stay at Sharks training camp speaks not only to the potential they see in him, but that he’s able to hang with high-level talent in the present.
The stat is what it is, but one doesn’t go from minus-41 to minus-29 to plus-4 while logging heavy minutes purely by happenstance. As has been stated repeatedly in previous columns, Merkley has proven time and time again to be extremely adept at getting his teammates the puck while they’re in prime positions to score, and it’s not for nothing that he’s the offensive leader on a Guelph team that does not lack for talent; in fact, he’s tied for the team lead in scoring.
Perhaps the Sharks see something Hockey Canada doesn’t, as Merkley was the only one of the ten ‘00-born 2018 first-round picks who wasn’t invited to Canada camp. Apparently, then, he remains too much of a question mark when it comes to competing for his country on the World Junior stage. Again, it’s disappointing, but not a shock.
Guelph’s weekend that was
A loss to the Generals has already been mentioned, as has Merkley’s uninspired play on the game winner. He did, though, register an even strength assist in that game, albeit secondary in nature. It should also be noted that Merkley was benched for the remaining minutes of the game after that play, so clearly coach and general manager George Burnett was sending a message.
“We decided we were pushing pretty good and that’s the decision we made tonight,” Burnett said, per Tony Saxon of Guelph Today. ”We need Ryan. Ryan’s a top player in this league and we need him at his best. It’s important we get turned around and have a big game from him on Sunday.”
If that message wasn’t loud enough, Hockey Canada’s should ring in his ears over any Christmas bells over the next few weeks.
In fairness, Merkley bounced back nicely on Sunday as the Kitchener Rangers really 8-1 at the hands of the Storm. Merkley recorded three assists, including this beauty on what would stand as the deciding goal, scored by Cam Hillis.
And lest anyone think this Storm can’t bring the thunder, Merkley was out there leveling the opposition as well.
That trio of assists puts him at 32 for the season, 17 of which have been primary helpers. He does rank second in terms of primary points per game to London’s Evan Bouchard (1.18 to 0.84). One can’t help but wonder if Merkley would have had a better shot at Team Canada had the Edmonton Oilers kept Bouchard up at the NHL level.
Guelph, by the way, now has a record of 14-7-3, and the Storm’s 34 points are good for third in the West behind both the Knights (42 points) and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (39 points).
The OHL schedule does take a bit of a break over Christmas, but Merkley remaining with his junior squad throughout the World Juniors (Dec. 26 - Jan. 5) could help Guelph make up some ground in the standings.
Friday, Dec. 7 @ Sault Ste. Marie
Saturday, Dec. 8 @ Sudbury