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Photo Credit: Terry Wilson/OHL Images

CANUCKSARMY’S 2018 NHL DRAFT RANKINGS: #16 Ryan Merkley

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.

Bio

  • 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)

Stats

Career

2017-18 Season

GP G A P SEAL INV% 5v5 Pr INV% 5v5 eP160 Sh/Gp Sh% GF% GF%rel GD60rel XLS% XPR xVAL
63 13 54 67 1.19 32.2% 14.7% 0.89 2.29 9% 43.4% -2.3% -0.27 66% 36.3% «xVAL»

 

Adjusted Scoring (SEAL)

Team Relative

 

Cohort Based

Our Take

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.

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.

 

Further Reading

Consolidated Average Future Considerations Hockey Prospect.com ISS Hockey McKeen’s The Athletic TSN Bob McKenzie TSN Craig Button The Hockey News Sportsnet ESPN Dobber Prospects
24 25.4 25 $$ N/R 24 $$ 11 26 32 31 24 18

 

From Steve Kourianos, The Draft Analyst:

“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

#17 Barrett Hayton #18 Rasmus Kupari #19 RYAN MCLEOD
#20 JONATAN BERGGREN #21 VITALI KRAVTSOV #22 ALEXANDER ALEXEYEV
#23 CALEN ADDISON #24 DOMINIK BOKK #25 SERRON NOEL
#26 MARTIN KAUT #27 DAVID GUSTAFSSON #28 JAKE WISE
#29 BODE WILDE #30 RASMUS SANDIN #31 COLE FONSTAD
#32 JETT WOO #33 ALLAN MCSHANE #34 K’ANDRE MILLER
#35 JACOB OLOFSSON #36 NATHAN DUNKLEY #37 NILS LUNDKVIST
#38 JONATHAN GRUDEN #39 FILIP HALLANDER #40 JARED MCISAAC
#41 Nicolas Beaudin #42 Jack McBain #43 Ty Dellandrea
#44 Jesse Ylonen #45 Mattias Samuelsson #46 Jonny Tychonick
#47 Niklas Nordgren #48 Aidan Dudas #49 GRIGORI DENISENKO
#50 KYLE TOPPING #51 BLADE JENKINS #52 SEAN DURZI
#53 JACK DRURY #54 JAKUB LAUKO #55 JACOB RAGNARSSON
#56 ANDERSON MACDONALD #57 ADAM GINNING #58 FILIP KRAL
#59 Albin Eriksson # 60 Adam Samuelsson #61 Cameron Hillis
#62 Philipp Kurashev #63 BLAKE MCLAUGHLIN #64 MARCUS WESTFELT
#65 MILOS ROMAN #66 OSKAR BACK #67 GABRIEL FORTIER
#68 RILEY SUTTER #69 YEGOR SOKOLOV #70 ALEXANDER KHOVANOV
#71 CURTIS DOUGLAS #72 BENOIT-OLIVIER GROULX #73 SAMPO RANTA
#74 MARCUS KARLBERG #75 AXEL ANDERSSON #76 DAVID LILJA
#77 KODY CLARK #78 DMITRY ZAVGORODNY #79 LINUS NYMAN
#80 LIAM FOUDY #81 LINUS KARLSSON #82 Jachym Kondelik
#83 SCOTT PERNOVICH #84 G JAKUB SKAREK #85 TY EMBERSON
#86 JAY O’BRIEN #87 CARL WASSENIUS #88 VLADISLAV KOTKOV
#89 EMIL WESTERLUND #90 JERRY TURKULAINEN #91 STANISLAV DEMIN
#92 TYLER MADDEN #93 JAN JENIK #94 G OLIVIER RODRIGUE
#95 XAVIER BERNARD #96 KRISTIAN TANUS #97 LUKAS WERNBLOM
#98 NANDO EGGENBERGER #99 MATTHEW STRUTHERS #100 SHAWN BOURDIAS

 

  • truthseeker

    The problem I see with this logic though is that if what you’re saying is true and he has issues with the defensive side of the game then it’s almost not even a decision. We already know how risk adverse NHL coaches are to playing guys who can’t play D. They don’t play them. And Green seems like a pretty strict example of that kind of coach.

    If the kid can’t play D then, like J. Subban, he won’t even get a game at the NHL level no matter how much O talent he has.

    I really don’t have an issue with the canucks trying to reign in a “problem child” case like this. It would be a good risk kind of thing if he dropped to the second round to us. But if the D thing is ultimately the problem, it won’t matter if he gets his attitude straight.

    Interesting case though.

  • Rodeobill

    I was hoping he might fall to us in the second, due to his issues, but I can’t see it happening. He is probably going to go to a Stanley cup contender in the mid to late first and be a home run pick for them. Also, that was the famous slash? I have seen worse infractions during most games in the playoffs and many uncalled. Does it show a poor temper? Yes. Was it ill advised and harmful? yes. I wouldn’t put it in the same conversation as McSorely or Bertuzzi, etc.

  • canesfan98

    Could a team maybe draft Merkley and Truro convert him to the wing, where defense is less of a priority. He could use his speed, puck handling, and passing vision effectively there. I could also see power play quarterback in his future, maybe even on a five forward power play unit

    He’s going to WSH, calling it

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    This guy has bust written all over him, as I see it. His talent has carried him a long way, but it can’t carry someone all the way to NHL success.

    Also, I know that +/- is out of style, but being a defenceman and being the worst player on a bad team in that stat two years in a row is a little bit concerning.

      • But he’s still an undersized offensive defenceman that can’t play defence. I bet Jordan Subban would do really well in the NHL if they allowed a fourth pairing that could be used only for the PP. But that’s not reality and if Merkley can’t defend, he’s pretty much useless. Elite NHL forwards would eat him for breakfast.

        • Chris the Curmudgeon

          Jordan Subban was a 4th round pick who got to the AHL still with some possibility of being called up at some point. He was selected with full knowledge of his gifts and his flaws, and those have mostly been born out. Bottom line, you can’t really call a 4th rounder a bust, especially not one who was always going to be a project and who still has another kick or two at the can. The comparison to a guy some had projected in the top 10 is not really a reasonable one.

  • Given the number of high-end defensive prospects who are likely to fall out of the top-10 in this draft, seems like the perfect opportunity to trade down for another 1st round (or high 2nd round) pick.

    • I hope this wasn’t a suggestion to trade down for Merkley. Look at guys like Evander Kane (traded twice) or Josh Ho-Sang (keeps getting demoted to the AHL). There are plenty of high-end defensive prospects without bad attitudes.

      • Kane was traded for an absolutely haul by the Jets, and scored the Sabres a decent prospect, a first round pick, and a fourth round pick. Not much to complain about there.

        I’m not specifically arguing for Merkley, but there seem to be a number of players with similar ceilings to the consensus 5-10 range players, but are viewed as higher risk. Taking multiple bets on higher-risk/equal reward players seems a better strategy than putting all your eggs in one marginally-safer basket.

        Attitude issues are often overblown anyway. This guy’s one of the youngest in his draft class. Maybe it takes him an extra year or two to get his act together – if he otherwise lives up to his potential, it’s worth the wait.

        • Kane was traded with Bogosian and another player for Myers, a 1st (Roslovic), and a few other roster/prospect players. Are you thinking of a different trade?

          But ideally, you want to keep your players, not trade them for a large haul…especially because the other players on the team can’t stand him. Like Byfuglien throwing Kane’s track suit into the shower? If I have a 30 goal power forward, I want to keep that rather than getting draft picks in hopes of finding a 30 goal power forward.

          Attitude means a lot. I think anyone that has been stuck with a crappy coworker, classmate, friend, etc. know how much happier and productive you are when you don’t have to deal with XYZ person.

          But I agree with the idea of going for high risk/reward players. Especially since Benning has such a talented (and now trained) scouting department. But if it’s a bad attitude, meh, it’s a professional hockey team, not counselling.

  • apr

    This kid profiles so much to Anthony Deangelo, who had the highest D offensive upside in his draft year (along with Ekblad). Can’t or won’t play defense, and suspended for 8 games for harassing a teammate. The skills may be there, but I just don’t like the risk. If Jake Wise, Sandin, Alexeev, and Merkely are there ate 37, I would rather either the first of those 3. We really don’t know what we have in Jake and Oli, and JB has given up 2 2nds. I’d rather go conservative with the 1st and 2nd picks. If he’s there in the 3rd round (like Kylington a few years back – sure, why not).

    • ADS

      Conversely, don’t be seduced strictly by the statistical profile. As mentioned numerous times, the statistical profile/pGPS is one part of the evaluation criteria, not the only one.