Canadiens Need Ryan Merkley’s Skills But Not His Attitude

Ryan Merkley has asked for a trade from the San Jose Sharks. Frank Seravalli of The Daily Faceoff was the first on the story, stating that the Sharks are aiming to honor it. Despite the team having a season that will lead them to a lottery pick, he has solely played in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season, where he has 14 assists (six of those on the power play) in 30 games with the San Jose Barracuda. Despite being nearly 0.5 points per game and factoring in on 16 percent of all of the Barracuda goals (88 goals in 35 games) on a weak offensive team.

Is Merkley a fit for the Habs? Would general manager Kent Hughes take a gamble on him? Merkley does play a style that fits with the more modern version of the NHL defenseman. It is the cost to acquire and the player’s character that could be an issue.

Style of Play

It isn’t a surprise to see the player request a trade. The 22-year-old defenseman has not been given too many opportunities at the NHL level since being drafted in 2018. He has a grand total of 39 games played with a stat line of one goal and six points, with all of those games coming in the 2021-22 season. With a Sharks lineup that was not expected to be competing for the playoffs from the start of the season, and despite all of the injuries to the Sharks’ blue line, he has not been seen as worthy of a call-up.

Related: Canadiens’ Player Development Changes Having a Big Impact

Merkley is an offensive defenseman and is a treat whenever he has the puck. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound right-hander can really skate well. He has good mastery of his edges, allowing him to make direction changes at top speed. He also thinks the game at a high pace offensively as he is able to create passing and shooting lanes using his skating, and has the vision to take advantage of them. He is also the owner of a good shot, not an overpowering cannon of a shot, but one with good velocity and accuracy. His issue with his shot is that he doesn’t use it as often as he should, especially if he’ll want to keep NHL defenses guessing on if he will shoot or pass. His best attribute, that may interest the Canadiens the most, is his ability to quarterback a power play.

Ryan Merkley San Jose Sharks
Ryan Merkley, San Jose Sharks, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas Texas, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Defensively, he can be a threat to his own team when playing without the puck. He will need to focus on his positioning due to the fact that he is undersized and can be overpowered by larger NHL forwards. While he hasn’t been capable of finding the consistency needed to play defense at the NHL level that could come with time. Playing regularly, even on a third pairing, on a rebuilding team, could be what he needs to add that necessary experience.

The biggest hurdle to if Hughes would add Merkley to the Canadiens’ dressing room is the defender’s reputation as having an issue with his attitude. Merkely’s reputation is that he is immature and has difficulty accepting accountability for his play. That reputation has followed him from his days in the OHL as a player that is hard to manage (on the ice) as he has been known to make bad decisions in regards to pinching in the offensive zone and not focusing more on his defensive game.

However, that reputation must be taken with a grain of salt. London Knights head coach Dale Hunter praised Merkley’s play, attitude and leadership. The desire to improve and help his team is present.

His head coach with the Barracuda, John McCarthy, has added some context to the moody attitude that those outside the room point to.

Canadiens Fit. Kind of.

Even when fully healthy, the Canadiens have a weakened blue line, due mostly to inexperience as the Habs have relied on as many as five rookie defensemen. But since losing Mike Matheson and Kaiden Guhle, the outlook has gotten much worse. After 40 games played, the team sits 28th in the NHL with 158 goals allowed. They also average five high-danger chances against per game.

When it comes to a need, Merkley fits two of the Canadiens’ needs. They do lack depth in the system when it comes to right-handed defensemen and are in need of puck-moving defenders. He fits the bill on those fronts, but his inability to crack the lineup of a rebuilding team is concerning, as the Habs are in the same situation and Hughes would need to do some in-depth due diligence.

Adding him to the system would add competition and provide the option for management to allow Justin Barron to return to the AHL for the rest of the season to work on his game and prepare to compete for an NHL job next season. Also, even if adding Merkley doesn’t work out, Hughes has the option of not submitting a qualifying offer as he is a restricted free agent in the final year of his three-year, entry-level contract paying him $863,333.

Justin Barron Montreal Canadiens
Justin Barron, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

The risk versus reward is difficult to gauge without knowing the cost of trading for the mercurial defender. If the cost is simply a fifth-round pick (Canadiens hold two 2023 fifth-round picks), or a lower tier prospect in a situation of not having NHL opportunities in the Habs’ system such as Joel Teasdale, then it could be worthwhile. If the cost is any more than one of those assets, it would simply not be worth the risk.

Merkley has failed so far in establishing himself as an NHL-level defenseman, on a rebuilding team, no less. However, his offensive skill set is evident and he is approaching a key time in his professional career. A fresh start with a team that would be willing to put him on their roster and give him power-play time could provide him the opportunity to salvage what was once a very promising career. There is no question that the Caandiens will continue to suffer their fair share of adversity for another 18 to 24 months. It remains to be seen what type of player Merkley could become, but if the cost is very low, the risk versus reward ratio to gamble on him could be worthwhile for Montreal.