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Storm Watch: What to expect from Ryan Merkley and company

San Jose’s first-round pick is set to take the OHL by Storm.

DALLAS, TX - JUNE 22: Ryan Merkley poses after being selected twenty-first overall by the San Jose Sharks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on June 22, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

“Learn and grow and get better.”

That’s what Ryan Merkley said he wanted to get out of attending the San Jose Sharks development camp back in July, and it will no doubt remain the 2018 first-round pick’s mantra as he plies his trade for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm this season.

As we all know by now, Merkley — who turned 18 on August 14 — was selected 21 overall by the Sharks after recording 13 goals, 54 assists and (for those who still care about this stat) a minus-29 rating last season, his second at the OHL level. He’s been a near point-per-game player since Guelph picked him first overall in the OHL Priority Selection Draft back in 2016, with 25 goals and 97 assists in 122 games (0.98 average). There’s no doubting his offensive abilities; all you have to do is watch him with the puck for a few minutes and he shows flashes of a young and similarly sized and skilled Ryan Ellis. One would expect his point totals to rise again this season, with full power-play quarterback duties and plenty of ice time all around.

It’s another comparable that is a bit more troubling though, and it begins all conversations as to why a player with top-10 talent dropped to San Jose to begin with. “Anyone you talk to about him, there’s going to be a ‘but…’” an anonymous scout told Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News prior to the Draft. “His ability to skate and make plays — not many players are like him. But everyone is asking if he’s the next Anthony D’Angelo, with the bad attitude and the lack of emotional control. Defensively he has to get better — at times it seems like he’s bored with defending.”

The bad attitude was most publicly exemplified during his rookie season when then Guelph head coach Jarrod Skalde sent Merkley to the dressing room mid-game after the young defenseman mouthed off on the bench following some ill-advised turnovers. And his poor decision making isn’t only a knock on his defensive game or a propensity to give the puck away at times, but also a stick-swinging incident that earned him a three-game suspension last season.

Skalde was known to scratch Merkley from time to time to give the kid a bird’s eye view of the game from the upper reaches of the Sleeman Centre, but despite the seemingly contentious relationship, the former Storm coach noted growth leading up to the defenseman’s draft year.

“There’s been a huge growth spurt for him mentally and emotionally. Handling losing games and handling tough situations,” Skalde told Guelph Today. “His maturity has come a long way. We’ve watched him grow right in front of us.

“Ryan’s come a long way with that commitment to playing defence. He’s an all-round better player,” Skalde added. “It’s fun watching him grow and watching him become a complete player.”

Doug Wilson wouldn’t have called Merkley’s name if there was lingering doubt about his maturity and ability to grow and adapt.

“We spent a lot of time with him,” Wilson told Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman on the Draft floor. “We asked him the tough questions, we liked the way he handled it. He’s one of the youngest kids in the draft, he’s got a tremendous upside to him with his skill set. The answers he gave us made us feel comfortable looking him in the eye that he wants to be a great player and hockey is what he wants to do. Might be a few things that maybe he’d do differently, but we’re very proud to have him. We really are.”

Guelph is also proud to have him, and it’s here that he will undoubtedly be playing this season, barring an all-world showing at NHL camp in a could weeks. The Storm will be relying heavily on the veteran Merkley this season amid a defense corps that features a pair of 16- and 17-year-old players, giving Guelph a blue line that’s not quite on the level with true OHL contenders. As an elder statesman and NHL draftee, it behooves Merkley to further shed his old rep and step up as a future pro; indeed, to be always learning, growing and trying to get better.

As local scribe and long-time Storm writer Tony Saxon recently noted, “the Storm has the opportunity to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference this year. But they’re still about four players away from being that team.” What that means is the Storm team that begins the regular season later in September will benefit from some veteran additions to the blue line as the season progresses and the playoffs approach.

In the end, anything less than a playoff spot and at least one series win would be considered a major flop.

Here’s a look at the other Storm players who have been drafted to the NHL:

F Cam Hillis - MTL (2018) RD: 3 (#66)
F Liam Hawel - DAL (2017) RD: 4 (#101)
F Nate Schnarr - ARI (2017) RD: 3 (#75)
F Alexey Toropchenko - STL (2017) RD: 4 (#113)
F Isaac Ratcliffe - PHI (2017) RD: 2 (#35)
D Dmitri Samorukov - EDM (2017) RD: 3 (#84)

And finally, the Storm unveiled a new logo over the summer, meaning this writer needs to grab a new toque for the winter.

Look for regular Storm and Merkley updates from the rink all season long.