Hyped before his draft year as a potential top-five selection in 2018’s deep draft class, defenseman Ryan Merkley has all the tools to be an elite defenseman. He ended up falling to the 21st pick where he was drafted by the San Jose Sharks.
Why the fall?
Merkley posted 67 points in 63 games in his draft year with the OHL’s Guelph Storm, leading his team in points-per-game as a defenseman. In his post-draft season, he put up his third consecutive 60 point season with 71 in 63 games. Heralded for his elite skating and vision, he excels in the offensive zone and typically drives his team’s power-play.
With the combination of his quick shot release and high-end passing ability, Merkley’s offensive potential is seemingly limitless. He’s an offensive threat in any zone – using his skating to change directions effortlessly and create space, or by using his vision to find a hidden scoring chance. Sometimes I find that Merkley’s game is a bit too selfless at times and when he has a shooting lane, he should go for it. He possesses a quick release along with an accurate slap shot, although his shot needs to add power. Merkley completely controls the offense whenever he’s at the opposing blue line.
It’s the rest of Merkley’s game that gave scouts a red flag. He subsequently dropped in rankings throughout 2018 due to his unmotivated defensive play and locker-room issues.
Defensive inconsistency has only been an issue at the OHL level where Merkley has played 199 games. At times it seemed as if he wasn’t even trying defensively and was only interested in playing when he had the puck on his stick. His defensive effort at times is equivalent to a controller disconnecting on the back check in EA’s NHL series. These moments happened too often for Merkley, who had no accountability for his lazy defensive play.
At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, when Merkley decided to show up defensively, his smaller stature left him physically outmatched. While he’s on the smaller side for defensemen, his physicality and stick-checking were never a problem, the effort was. In limited AHL and NHL pre-season action, he looked more refined defensively and made efforts to get back. When he tries defensively, he is decent. When he decides not to try, he is among the worst defensive players in the OHL.
Throughout his junior career, his character issues have been well-documented. Aside from his on-ice issues such as giving up defensively, arguing with teammates, and disagreements with coaches, Merkley has been a problem for his teams off the ice.
“Extremely immature hockey player with a massive amount of offensive ability. He’s been described as petulant, and at times I think he’s made his own life in hockey difficult…he’s had poor self-awareness, and a real lack of accountability.” -Bob McKenzieTSN Bobcast
Just recently, news broke that the Peterborough Petes of the OHL were working on finding a trading partner for Merkley, as he had been omitted from their training camp roster. He had worn out his welcome with the team and the Petes have made it apparent they will not start the season with him on the roster.
Merkley, who has a no-movement clause, was acquired from the Guelph Storm last season just before their Memorial Cup run. The trade said a lot about him if a team in contention would rather trade him than make a playoff run with him. The Storm received forward Pavel Gogolev, a 2019 second-round pick, Windsor’s 2021 third-round pick, and conditional picks: a 2023 second, a 2024 third, and 2022 fourth-round picks for the OHL’s first-overall selection in 2016. If Merkley does not play for Peterborough this season the conditional picks will be voided.
Merkley’s character issues didn’t follow him to San Jose either, during training camp last season it was apparent he got along well with the team. The Sharks have built up a reputation for having a great locker room with characters such as Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture. General manager Doug Wilson also took on a similarly perceived locker room issue in Evander Kane who has also fit in well.
Brent Burns, a Norris Trophy winner and one of the best offensive defensemen in the league, had also notably taken Merkley under his wing during training camp and allowed the 18-year-old to live with him over the summer. While the sample size is much smaller, the takeaway is that he doesn’t seem to take the OHL seriously, or he only wanted to build on his offensive potential. Most likely the former. If his defensive efforts in professional hockey can consistently be steady, he’ll make it as an NHL defenseman.