Once considered a virtual lock to be the first defenceman selected after Rasmus Dahlin in the 2018 Draft, Ryan Merkley has plummeted down draft boards in the latter half of the season; so much so that many publications have him ranked outside the first or even the second round. At first glance, he seems like a can’t-miss prospect, possessing the speed and skill with the puck that should make him a game-changer at the NHL level. Unfortunately, he comes with more than a little baggage.
Throughout the process of doing research for this profile, I kept being reminded of a story Jeff Marek told on an episode of the 31 Thoughts podcast about Ryan Merkley from his time doing interviews for the 2018 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game:
“One of the questions [I asked him] was, what’s the one thing people have wrong about you? What’s the one thing that you hear about yourself that everybody has wrong? And he said, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what it is. One thing that everybody has wrong is that my teammates hate me. They don’t.’ … He was dying to get that out. He was just dying to tell people that his teammates like him.”
This story encapsulates the scouting community’s relationship with Merkley perfectly. It’s pretty tough to know what to make of a statement like that. Maybe he’s just misunderstood, but the fact that he felt the need to set the record straight in the first place probably isn’t a good sign.
The team that eventually selects Merkley will be making a gamble, but that’s true of virtually any player outside the top few picks. The truth is, the chance to draft a player with his skill set just doesn’t come around often. At some point, the reward begins to outweigh the risk. That’s why he clocks in at #16 on our yearly rankings.
- Age/Birthplace: 17.09 / August 14, 2000
- Birthplace: Oakville ON, CAN
- Frame: 5’11” / 170 lbs
- Position: D
- Handedness: R
- Draft Year Team: Guelph Storm (OHL)
- Accomplishments/Awards: OHL Rookie of the Year (2016-17), OHL First All-Rookie Team (2016-17), Hlinka Memorial Gold Medal (201718)
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Adjusted Scoring (SEAL)
There’s really no other way to say it: Ryan Merkley is one of the best prospects in this year’s class, but he needs to get his shit together. I don’t just mean in terms of the things you hear whispers about -conduct off the ice, learning to be a better teammate, yada yada- that stuff is largely speculative and it’s unfair to not give a 17-year-old kid a little room to make mistakes. But the issues with Merkley extend to his play on the ice as well.
Ryan Merkley is notably bad at the defensive side of the game, even for junior hockey. This is evidenced by the fact that despite finishing his season above the 95th percentile among draft eligible players in virtually every offensive category, Merkley finished the season as a below average player defensively. That’s not a good look.
In Merkley’s defence, the Guelph storm were not a good team this season and they struggled to keep the puck out of the net. Only four teams in the OHL allowed more goals against this season than the Storm. Goals can be random, even volatile at times, so it’s possible some of Merkley’s ugly defensive numbers are the result of bad luck. Then again, Merkley’s numbers look bad even when compared with the rest of his team, and many of his common linemates actually saw an uptick in their goal differential away from him.
In the defensive zone and at times on the backcheck, Merkley looks disengaged. This could be because he’s just not that committed to playing defense, or it could be because he legitimately doesn’t know what to do or where to be. Neither option shines a flattering light on the young defender.
Merkley’s has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism over the past year, but he’s invited a lot of that with the way he’s conducted himself at times. In one notable incident, Merkley was banished to the dressing room after an argument with his coach that arose after Merkley turned the puck over no less than four times. He was also suspended in early February for a McSorelyesque slash to the helmet of North Bay Battalion forward Daniel Walker.
@Storm_City Ryan Merkley takes a slash and gives retaliatory baseball swing to @OHLBattalion Daniel Walker. Merkley gets a 5 min slash, Unsportsmanlike Misconduct & Game Misconduct #OHL Guelph wins 3-2 OT pic.twitter.com/HWSXizYVhN
— Troy Izlakar 🇨🇦 (@izzies44) February 4, 2018
It’s a big part of the reason all 25 teams that interviewed Merkley asked him about his attitude issues. To his credit, he’s owned all of it, and identified all the areas where he needs work. That’s the thing about some of the things Merkley has done that have drawn the ire of many scouts: they can be taken more than one way. Where one person sees an impulsive hothead, others will see a passionate kid who just needs to be nudged in the right direction.
Think of how special a player’s talent has to be for the considerable amount of bad press Merkley’s drawn not to be considered prohibitive. The fact of the matter is, there are things Merkley can do with the puck that his peers just can’t. This goal from the Storm’s Teddy Bear Toss night is a perfect example of what Merkley is capable of:
Merkley doesn’t have a booming slap shot, but he doesn’t need one. He has a sharp, accurate wrister that he keeps low to the ice and the vision to get his shots through with consistency. He pinches a little too often, so you can add that to the list of things that he may need to have coached out of him at the pro level, but suffice to say there’s a reason he’s still listed as a first-round talent by many publications.
He’s a smooth, effortless skater who’s calm under pressure in the offensive zone and isn’t afraid to join the rush. As good as the other areas of his offensive game are, his passing is truly next level. Merkley always seems to be able to find his man regardless of how fast he’s moving or how much traffic there is around him. Mitchell brown has done some great work tracking shot and scoring chance contributions at the junior level, and it’s almost laughable how much Merkley stands out in this regard.
Evan Bouchard’s going to get a lot of deserved attention for leading his team in scoring as a first-time draft-eligible defenceman, but it’s worth noting that Merkley came within one point of doing the same for a considerably worse team.
For every reason one might have to dislike Merkley, there’s an equally valid reason to like him. Despite coming with the “risky pick” label, Merkley carries an expected likelihood of success of 66% via the prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), which would actually make him one of the safest picks of the draft from a statistical standpoint. The team that selects Merkley will be rolling the dice, but they’ll be weighted. All Merkley has to do is just keep his head down, keep working, and mature the way literally thousands of prospects have before him.
When Merkley came into the league he had just turned 16, and could have buckled under the pressure of being a first overall pick in the OHL draft. Instead he excelled, scoring 55 points in 62 games to lead the Storm in scoring. He also became the first OHL defenceman to lead all rookies in scoring since 1988. He’s risen to the challenge before, and if I’m a team picking in the mid-to-late first round, I’m betting that as one of the youngest players in this class, Merkley is capable of maturing enough over the next few years that his issues this season become a distant memory.
As a good friend of mine once said, red flags are popping up, and I couldn’t care less.
Merkeley is Just. That. Good.
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“Roving playmaker from the blueline with excellent speed and a superior understanding of his responsibilites as a jump-starter and attacker. Merkley is pure offense in every sense of the term, and it seems as everything he does with the puck has a cherry on top. He is a commanding presence who carries the puck as well as he dishes it out, and you can always count on him to find the open man, especially back-door and off the rush. Merkley has a quick first step, but he also shifts speeds to routinely catch opponents flat footed. It’s hard to see Guelph’s attack survive without him, as it relies heavily on his quick, crisp breakout passes that trap the most aggressive of forecheckers. He owns a hard, accurate shot with a big wind-up, Merkley gets enough mustard on long-distance wristers to force goalies to lose control of rebounds.”
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CanucksArmy’s 2018 NHL Draft Rankings