Arguably the most anticipated player drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the past five years — who isn’t named William Eklund — is offensively-talented defender Ryan Merkley. For those who have followed his career, there’s good reason to believe that he is on track to becoming a full-time NHL player.
All of his NHL experience comes from his debut campaign this last season, where he earned five assists and netted his first NHL goal through 39 games. Despite modest numbers, Merkley has easily become a regular option on the third pair after first stepping in for the eighth game of the season while the Sharks dealt with early injuries on the blue line.
While he has largely divided the community in terms of his worth, being known as a smallish defensemen with good skating and elite offensive abilities, but lacking defensive qualities, he has arguably improved upon the faults attributed to him a year ago.
This is reflected in Merkley’s underlying numbers. Corsi measures shot-attempt differential for a player based on the total of shots, plus blocks and misses — both for and against — while the player is on the ice through all situations. Finding one’s Corsi-For percentage (CF%) attempts to place value on their offensive and defensive effectiveness, with any value above 50 percent indicating the player’s team possessing the puck more often than not with that player on the ice.
Merkley’s CF% in 2020-21 playing for the Barracuda in the AHL was around 51 percent through 31 games. Playing in the NHL this season, Merkley ticks in at 49.5 percent through 39 games. The comparison shows a slight drop, but is underpinned by the fact that he played against better-quality opponents in the NHL this time around. It’s nothing to rave about, but it’s a start, especially for a guy who was drafted at 21st overall in 2018, which was largely considered a controversial boom-or-bust pick.
Without much in the prospect cupboard until the past two drafts brought a total of 18 picks, the Sharks took a chance on drafting Merkley, the kid who had all the potential to be a game-changer, but who was largely valued to go past the second-round due to an attitude issue with coaches and teammates on his junior clubs and a lackadaisical commitment to defense. Since joining the Sharks organization and making his professional debut with the Barracuda in 2018-19, there have no reported attitude issues, though his defense is still somewhat considered an area needing improvement.
Aside from that, Merkley has gotten ample opportunity to shine on the Sharks second power play unit. This is due to his ability to create deception at the blue line to catch the encroaching penalty killers out of position — an element of his play that garnered attention as early as his junior career.
Merkley first joined the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in 2016. He has a bit of a colored history in that league, having been traded twice and playing with three different teams through a four-year junior career. As mentioned, Merkley didn’t always see eye-to-eye with coaches and teammates in juniors.
He was drafted first-overall in the 2016 OHL Priority Draft by the Guelph Storm, but was eventually traded in his third year with the team, drafted by the Sharks that same year. It was reported that Merkley and then-coach Jarrod Skalde had a number of disagreements which manifested in a number of ways, prompting the trade.
Despite the controversy, the Sharks focused on his elite potential after scoring 161 points through 153 games with the Storm, good enough for 1.05 points-per-game, an impressive mark for a defenseman. Merkley was also selected to represent Canada internationally for two consecutive years during his junior career.
In the year Merkley was drafted into the NHL, he attended Sharks development camp and played two games with the Barracuda, giving fans in San Jose a taste of his dynamic playmaking, smooth skating, and high-end vision that earned him juniors fame.
Merkley was eventually traded twice more, to and from the Peterborough Petes, before finally settling on the London Knights, with his attitude cited in a familiar and recurring story of being traded. Through four years in the OHL, amassing 269 points through 248 games across three different clubs, the Sharks gave Merkley the longest-possible time to develop before going professional.
Since joining the organization, he’s still a bit of a polarizing figure, with one camp arguing that he’s lagged behind in developing, now 21 years old, and only defensively-capable of playing in the AHL. The other camp is more forgiving, citing his low usage as evidence that he hasn’t been given enough opportunity yet to figure it out at the NHL level. For what it’s worth, Merkley’s average time-on-ice (ATOI) in the 2021-22 Sharks season was 15:23. But should young players have to earn more opportunities, or should they be given more room to prove themselves? It depends what your philosophy is, but head coach Bob Boughner seems to agree more with the former, based on Merkley’s ATOI so far.
Some consider Merkley a future replacement for Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson. Admittedly, he’s shown to have some special abilities, doing offensive-defenseman, Burns- and Karlsson-type things, such as quarterbacking the power play and moving the puck into a better position. But I’d argue that Merkley is an offensive-defensman in his own right, with a skillset differing from those of Burns or Karlsson.
Still, perhaps with Burns getting the trade-bait treatment during this off-season, Merkley’s chances of establishing himself as an important fixture in the Sharks’ playbook increases with the start of the next season.
What We Like
The Sharks were not the only ones to be tempted by Merkley’s raw talent and high ceiling. Before he was drafted by San Jose, at least, people from the larger hockey community seemed to have him on their radar. Adam Herman, from Blueshirt Banter for the New York Rangers, ranked Merkley at no. 13 and wrote that “In the offensive zone, Merkley may be the best defenseman in the entire draft; yes, including Dahlin.”
Given that Dahlin was drafted first-overall in 2018, that’s quite the appraisal. Perhaps what Sam Constentino of SportsNet had to say provided the best explanation, noting in the first-half of his statement that, “Based on pure skill alone, Merkley is a first rounder.”
With skill being one piece in a handful of required assets to be selected in the first round, the endorsement is — likewise — impressive. These are statements that still ring true today. There are plays I’ve seen Merkley make that I’ve never seen any other player be able to make. His evasions with a pressuring forechecker on him, his outmaneuvering to create an open lane at the point, and his vision to find the open player for a pass are all skills that haven’t gotten enough attention.
Areas of Improvement
The second-half of Constentino’s statement on Merkley: “There are many layers to this onion.” With Merkley’s skill being the outer-most layer, the next is his defense, as previously cited. Despite making some strides to improve that part of his game, the bottom line is that the positives still do not yet outweigh the negatives.
While 49.5 CF% is decent for a rookie, it still ultimately shows negative impact. With not much to show, just six total-points, for his heralded offensive skill, it’s easy to think that in his development, he has not improved at all if his concern areas (defense) are still a concern.
Specifically, Merkley still displays a lot of those bad habits that earned him statements like the second-half of Consentino’s; the occasional ill-advised overcommitments that put him out of position in d-zone corners, the desperation-plays defending the rush, the inability to keep the crease clear.
Or maybe Merkley is the rule, and not the exception, and has a longer runway to develop to NHL standards as many defenders do. Time will tell whether he’s truly a boom or bust.
Say what you want about his shortcomings, but there is no shortage of highlights when it comes to the guy. I wanted to highlight an area that I believe is the most important aspect of his game: his skating.
This display shows you everything you need to know about why Merkley is special, and what could make him great — outclassing the opposition in mobility. It’s the catalyst for his elusiveness, his blue line deception, and even though people think the offensive plays he makes are spectacular, really, he just uses his feet to give him the time and space to make his next play easy.