Ryan Merkley is the kind of defenseman that could compete for a Norris Trophy ten years from now. But at the young age of 17, he has a lot of growing to do before he gets there. As one scout told Guelph Today, “...you wouldn’t take him with the last pick of the first round, but you wouldn’t let him get past you if you had the first pick of the second round.”
That’s what all the top ranking lists say too. Future Considerations has him slotted at 25th in the draft, while NHL Central Scouting has him at 21st. ISS Hockey doesn’t even have Merkley going in the first round.
That’s because Merkley has amazing offensive upside coupled with amazing defensive downside. He registered 67 points with the Guelph Storm of the OHL this season, but also finished a minus-29, worst on the team.
“Merkley has the potential to be classed as a ‘special’ player where size is not relevant,” Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting told NHL.com. “He possesses elite skating and quickness that allow him to make a difference on the play and he plays a very dynamic offensive game which, when combined with good decisions and competitive instincts, often translate well in draft consideration.”
Merkley’s dynamic offensive game led him to 67 points (13 goals, 54 assists) in 63 games this season. A defenseman averaging 1.06 points per game at 17-years-old is pretty impressive. Last season, at age 16, he registered 55 points in 62 games.
His coach, George Burnett told NHL.com, “He has the ability to play the game at a very high pace. His vision and skill are certainly something that sets him apart from many players. I think when you look at him, his numbers and his skill speak for themselves.
”Obviously, the upside is tremendous.”
Last Word on Hockey calls Merkley, “...a dynamic offensive defenceman, with great skating in both directions. His tremendous edge work, pivots and agility allow him to cover a ton of ice. He also has an excellent point shot and loves to let it go from the point. His slap shot is powerful and accurate. Merkley is a very good passer. He can quarterback the power play and lead the rush.”
Future Considerations says, “…[Merkley’s] vision up the ice is absolutely elite…impressive when quarterbacking the power play and doing a good job of making consistently accurate breakout passes…has a deceptive slap-pass to teammates around the net…has a knack for getting the puck to the net through traffic with a quick, accurate release…his quick decision making and ability to read the play that really stand out.”
Areas of Improvement
As good as Merkley is in the offensive zone, he’s pretty bad in the defensive one. His minus-29 this season is actually an improvement on the minus-41 he posted in the 2016-17 season.
Future Considerations says Merkley does a “...good job of tracking players across his zone and using his stick to close off their passing options and take away space…will need to hit the weight room and improve defensive zone play…very high ceiling but also some risk…has high-end NHL upside generating offense from the back-end.”
While Last Word on Hockey says, “He shows poise at the blue line, and good stickhandling ability to get the puck out of danger and to create offensive chances. However, he must show improvements in his strength and defensive play to continue to move up the ranks. There are some big question marks concerning his work in his own end.”
Both also touch on another big point when it comes to Merkley. He is small. He’s 5-foot-11 and 163 pounds. According to The Athletic, the average height of an NHL player this season is 6-foot-1.1 and the average weight is 200.7 pounds. That’s two inches taller and 37 pounds heavier than Merkley.
Merkley is already at a disadvantage in size, which means he’ll need to be tenacious to win puck battles along the boards and have sound defensive positioning in his own zone. As already mentioned, Merkley’s defense is the big strike against him, so unless he works to improve his defensive game, he’s not going to last long in the NHL.
He’s also had reported attitude problems. There was an argument involving his coach in Guelph, as well as a conflict that had him cut from Team Canada’s U18 squad. The biggest key for Merkley moving forward is to mature, as these attitude issues have already affected his draft stock.
Merkley has plenty of highlights to choose from and here are some of the best from the 2017-18 season. You’ll notice from the first clip, Merkley has the ability to hold onto the puck and out skate the other team.
Let’s see what happens if he tries moves like that against Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Drew Doughty.
Merkley has the potential to be a dynamite offensive defenseman that competes for a Norris Trophy, but there are a lot of things that will have to go his way in order for that to happen. He’s on the small side right now. At 17, there a chance he’ll have a late growth spurt, but I doubt it. He’ll put on a few pounds in his early 20s, but there’s no way to make him taller.
It’s also possible that Merkley learns defensive zone responsibility, but then again, maybe he doesn’t. NHL teams will have to be willing to take that risk.
For the Sharks, who don’t have a second- or third- round pick, he might not be the best first-round pick and could go the way of Mirco Mueller. High potential, but fails to live up to expectations. Or he could meet expectations and be a great 21st overall pick. Trading to get him in the second round might be the best possible outcome for the Sharks to acquire him.