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Top 25 Sharks Under 25: Can No. 14 Nick Merkley break through?

The now-Rangers forward boosted the Barracuda’s scoring, but results have varied at the NHL level.

Nick Merkley #10 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues in a regular season game at SAP Center on November 4, 2021 in San Jose, California. Photo by Amanda Cain/NHLI

Sometimes unforeseen complications happen. If this article were to have been published before the NHL Trade Deadline, I would probably be talking about how Nick Merkley has been crucial to the San Jose Barracuda’s top-line scoring, while also providing the San Jose Sharks with reliable depth.

Alas, in a depth trade at the deadline, the center was traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for defender Anthony Bitetto. Even though Merkley is no longer a member of the organization, our rankings are etched in stone. Thus we shall continue with our No. 14 ranked player, perhaps providing some insight into what he can provide for the Rangers’ future, and why the Sharks felt they should move on from the young forward.

The case of Nick Merkley is one that isn’t necessarily uncommon in the NHL. When playing in the AHL, he’s usually tearing up the ice, but when recalled to the big leagues, he doesn’t end up sticking around for long. It’d be one thing if the Sharks originally drafted him, but Merkley’s scoring touch in the AHL (and lack thereof in the NHL) has been with him since he went professional in the Arizona Coyotes organization during the 2017-18 season.

Selected 30th overall by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Merkley received high praise in draft profiles from Defending Big D and Last Word On Sports. Ben Kerr of Last Word ranked Merkley 19th overall on his 2015 draft board, and noted Merkley’s hockey IQ: “[He] almost always seems to make the smart play with the puck on his stick. He uses good stick handling and puck protection in the cycle game to extend plays and wait for his teammates to get open.”

Leading up to draft eligibility, Merkley’s first full year of junior hockey came in 2013-14, playing with the Kelowna Rockets and winning the Jim Piggott Trophy as the WHL’s rookie of the year. That season, he finished fifth in scoring on the Rockets, who were eventually eliminated in the Western Conference Final.

In his draft year, Merkley’s production continued to increase, leading the team with 90 points in 72 games, however, just 20 of those points were goals. Like Merkley, the Rockets as a whole took a giant step forward that year, building off of the previous year’s trip to the Conference Final and winning the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Despite signing an entry-level contract with Arizona in September 2015, Merkley began his professional career in 2017-18 with the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL. It was here that the overarching theme of his career began: great in the AHL, but just not good enough for the NHL.

In his first season with Tucson, Merkley just barely crossed the point per game threshold, scoring 39 points (18 goals, 21 assists) in 38 games. He made his NHL debut that season, playing one game with the Coyotes. Merkley continued to produce with the Roadrunners the next two seasons, but didn’t see any NHL action again until the 2019-20 season, after he was sent to the New Jersey Devils as part of the package to acquire Taylor Hall (remember that?).

Merkley made his way to the Sharks organization in an off-season trade with the Devils, in exchange for defenseman Christian Jaros. Immediately, Merkley proved his offensive value to the Barracuda, recording 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 43 games, mostly with a fluctuating top-6. Merkley was called up with the other members of the organization affectionately known as the “SharkCuda” in late October during a COVID-19 outbreak in the Sharks locker room, and played seven of his nine games with the Sharks in the two weeks that followed. He was called up again in early January, but didn’t stick around, and his final game was in Detroit against the Red Wings.

What We Like

The strongest aspect of Nick Merkley’s game is his playmaking. Kerr raved about it in his draft profile, saying, “He’s got excellent offensive skills including superb vision and passing ability. Merkley sees the ice very well, and can thread a tape-to-tape pass through the smallest of openings.”

Merkley’s also very strong on the power play. He can be plugged into any AHL team’s top unit, scoring 24 career goals on the skater-advantage.

Areas of Improvement

As Derek Neumeier of Defending Big D put it in his draft profile, “Most elite prospects generally succeed in one of two main areas: speed and size. If you don’t excel in either area you usually drop, and while Merkley isn’t exactly handicapped in both categories, he doesn’t particularly excel in either.”

Merkley’s size, standing at 5-foot-10, might have been a factor in why he dropped to the end of the first round in 2015 despite his great playmaking. It may also explain why he hasn’t earned much of a shot in the NHL prior to joining the Sharks.

Highlight

Merkley scored his first NHL goal on this play back in 2019-20. It’s simple, but yet so effective. Despite not getting the centering pass he was looking for, Merkley stayed in front of the net to capitalize on a rebound from Kevin Rooney.