Ryan Merkley was a polarizing player before the San Jose Sharks picked him 21st overall in 2018. Projected to be a top-ten talent, top-five by some, the conventional wisdom on why the Oakville, Ontario native slid back so far in the first round was related to his poor attitude. There were reports that he lashed out at teammates and was banished to the Guelph locker room in the middle of a game in his draft-eligible year.
The 2018 NHL Draft had a plethora of talented defenders headed by Rasmus Dahlin at first overall. Beyond Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, and Ty Smith all went in the first round before Merkley. While Bouchard and Smith have yet to make their NHL debuts, the rest of the first-rounders selected ahead of Merkley, and Rasmus Sandin taken after him, have all debuted.
Did the Sharks Make a Mistake?
Soon after pulling a Sharks sweater over his head, Merkley acknowledged his past transgressions and, according to Kevin Kurz of The Athletic, he discussed the mental aspect of the game by noting, “I know it’s a big area. I’m going to be walking into a (Sharks) locker room with a bunch of men and dads, I can’t be acting like that,” (from ‘Sharks go with talented, but controversial defenseman Ryan Merkley in first round of NHL Draft,’ The AthleticNHL – 6/22/18).
Merkley went back to Guelph for his draft plus-1 season and posted 39 points in 28 games. The team made it to the Memorial Cup, but he was not there because he was traded to the Peterborough Petes for five draft picks and Pavel Gogolev. Perhaps the change of scenery did him good, as there were reports that he had issues with the Guelph coaches. His production slowed on the Petes to 32 points in 35 games. His chances of making the NHL seemed grim before the 2019-2020 season as he seemed to have worn out his welcome on a second OHL team and they asked him not to come to camp.
Does Any OHL Team Want Merkley?
Before the 2019-20 season, Merkley was traded again, this time to the London Knights, a perennial contender in the Ontario Hockey League. He had a good camp with the Sharks but was sent back to the OHL (from ‘San Jose Sharks’ prospect finds new place to play,’ Mercury News, 09/27/2019).
Playing for new coach Dale Hunter on a talented team seemed to do wonders for Merkley. He scored 76 points in 60 games to rank second in points among defensemen and first in assists.
More importantly than points, there were no reports of Merkley having attitude issues or conflicts with coaches.
How Good Is Merkley?
According to hockey prospecting, Merkely had the best chance of being an NHL player (tied with Quinn Hughes) of anyone in his draft year and even with his struggles two years later, he still sits at number three.
Merkley is among the talented defensemen taken in the first round in 2018, and he might end up being one of the top three.
The Sharks have two supremely talented right-handed defensemen in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but beyond those two, they have none signed for the 2020-21 season. A season proving he is ready to be a professional by excelling in the AHL for the Barracuda is the most likely scenario, however, there is a decent chance Merkley makes the NHL roster out of camp.
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Since the start of both the NHL and AHL seasons are still uncertain, the AHL could start before the NHL and Merkley could get acclimated to the professional game in the AHL without missing any NHL games. Starting him on the third pairing behind Karlsson and Burns would be a nice fit, and as the veterans start to decline, he should be ready for a larger role. The Sharks are certainly ready for their prized prospect to realize his potential.