Nick Merkely picks up the puck deep in the Brandon Wheat Kings zone and swoops behind the net, coming out wide before saucering a pass through the high slot to teammate Justin Kirkland on the far boards. Merkley turns on his edges to reverse momentum and finds open ice before Kirkland gives him the puck back with a cross-ice pass of his own. He’s wide open, but on a bad angle, and as the entire Wheat Kings team collapses to defend against the WHL’s scoring leader and Brandon netminder Jordan Papirny scrambles from post to post, Merkley feathers a pass through the crease to Rourke Chartier, who hasn’t seen an emptier net in his life. It’s the top-ranked Rockets’ second of six goals en route to an easy victory.
It’s plays like that one against Brandon that show how Merkley’s game has matured this season. Through 26 games, the reigning WHL rookie of the year has more assists than anyone in the Dub has points—except for linemate and triggerman Chartier, who is on better than a goal-per-game pace with Merkley setting him up. Needless to say, scouts are taking note and Merkley is flying up 2015 NHL Draft lists. “I try not to worry about it,” he says of his ranking. “I’m just playing the game.”
If only we could all “just play the game” the way Merkley does. Through 27 games he has eight goals and a 38 assists. A year after notching more goals than helpers, he has turned into an elite playmaker, and is making everyone around him better. Chartier and their linemate Tyrell Goulbourne have combined to score 40 goals. Chartier’s 28 are already a career high and Goulbourne is on pace to set career marks in goals and points.
Coming into this season, Merkley was projected to be a first-rounder, but not the top WHL prospect—curious considering he led all 16-year-olds in scoring last season. Was he being overlooked? Or were the Seattle’s Mathew Barzal or Portland’s Paul Bittner just better players? Looking at how Merkley is playing this year, it is hard to argue that he’s not the Dub’s top prospect now.
Merkley has raced out to a fantastic start and is turning heads more attention. In Sportsnet's Top 30 NHL Draft Prospects ranking, Merkley jumped 11 spots to just outside the top 10, ahead of Bittner and closing in on Barzal. Just as he does on the ice, Merkley dishes out the credit rather than keep it for himself: “Chartier’s been putting in everything,” he says. “Goulbourne is creating a lot of space out there and has good speed, he can take pucks to the net.”
Rockets head coach Dan Lambert put that line together early on this season and it meant moving Merkley to the wing after playing centre last year. The 5-foor-11, 187-lb. Calgary native says he’s enjoying the position change and has learned to adjust to having to fight for the puck along the boards. Merkley plays an aggressive game, pushing the pace with his speed. He also possesses tremendous hockey sense and vision. He’s drawing tougher assignments this year, facing the top defensive pairs and shutdown lines each night. Merkley says that will only help him prepare for the NHL, where there’s even less time and space. “Scoring from further out is my biggest thing right now,” he says. “At the next level you don’t get many chances in tight. I think just having the strength to score from the tops of the circles is something I need to work on.”
Merkley points to Patrick Kane as model for his game, but goes old school otherwise. “My favorite player was Bobby Orr,” he says. “He played with a lot of passion and I thought he was very humble on the ice.” No. 4 was no stranger to a good tilt, and, while fighting in junior hockey has been a hot topic of late, Merkley chuckles and says he hopes he doesn’t have to drop the gloves, but will if he feels he has to. That happened last weekend, kind of.
Merkley also draws inspiration and influence from his older brother Jay, who plays for the Swift Current Broncos. He says watching Jay go through some tough times with his first team in Lethbridge has helped him prepare for the ups and downs of junior hockey. The two talk on a regular basis and Nick is quick to point out that Kelowna beat Swift Current earlier this season and claims sibling bragging rights.
Merkley is enjoying his draft year. Playing for one of the CHL’s top teams and scoring at a torrid pace helps, but he also has fun lining up with and against other top prospects. While an invite to Canada's world junior camp is unlikely this year, he was part of Team Canada’s gold medal team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament this past summer and keeps tabs on the players he met there. “I’m good buddies with Barzal, we talk quite a bit,” he says. “We chirp quite a bit and I keep up on some of the OHL guys, too. It’s always fun competing with those guys.”
Merkley isn’t worried about where he is ranked or if he’s the top WHL prospect. He’s focused on helping the Kelowna Rockets win a championship. The draft can wait. “I think the biggest thing is playing the game,” he says. “Play with passion and the other things will come.”
Soft hands don’t hurt either.