Although his skills are undeniable, Ryan Merkley may be the most polarizing player who could get called in the first round of the NHL Draft.
“He’s one of the most talented players in the draft,” one National Hockey League scout told Sportsnet. “His natural ability to skate and make plays with the puck is at another level. But there are some teams that wouldn’t take him no matter what. He’s the biggest wildcard of the draft.”
Nobody argues about the defenceman’s natural talent. Merkley might turn out to be the best blueliner in this draft – or maybe second-best if top pick Rasmus Dahlin proves to be a generational player.
Dahlin is universally ranked No. 1 among prospects. NHL Central Scouting ranks Merkley as the 45th-best North American skater, which was a big fall from his mid-term ranking of 21.
Team: Guelph (OHL)
From: Oakville, Ont.
Weight: 170 pounds
So why exactly are there concerns with this player? There are a few things. Last season, he publicly argued with his junior coach at the bench and was sent to the dressing room. This season, Merkley was suspended three games for a dangerous, spectacularly undisciplined, two-handed slash at an opponent who had whacked him on the hand.
And in both years, while piling up points for the Storm like few defencemen in recent Ontario Hockey League history – 55 points in 62 games as a 16-year-old rookie, 67 points in 63 games this season – the mercurial Merkley has demonstrated an inability to defend and unwillingness, it seems, to learn.
Honestly, viewed from afar, his greatest fault seems to be immaturity. And not immaturity by average teenager standards – but immaturity in the context of the alternate-universe world of elite sports, in which NHL prospects who are just finishing high school are as prepared for draft interviews as courtroom lawyers and are sometimes better dressed.
To be fair to NHL general managers who fear Merkley may be toxic, his type of immaturity can be fatal to a player’s career if he doesn’t evolve. But in Merkley’s case, he seems fully aware of his shortcomings and says he’s trying to address them.
One of the most talented players in this year’s draft, and the first overall pick of the 2016 OHL Draft, Merkley could be picked in the second or even third round. For a team that wants to take a risk, Merkley is a gamble with a huge potential payoff.
THE COMBINE QUESTION
The NHL, at least, still included Merkley in the 104 players invited to the scouting combine in Buffalo, where the 170-pound defenceman met with 25 teams. And, yes, the first overall OHL draft pick had to answer questions about his attitude and maturity from all 25 of them.
“You just have to handle it, right?” Merkley told The Hockey News. “They did a good job of letting me talk and explain myself, so I was happy. I felt confident. It was really important for me to get to know the teams on a personal level.
“I have to work on my mental game for sure. My agent, J.P. Barry, is going to help me find people to talk to. I have to mature and deal with my frustration level, as well as my defensive game. I have to commit to the ‘D’ zone and clean that up.”
In Guelph’s game last February against the North Bay Battalion, Merkley lost his temper after he was slashed and retaliated with a two-handed baseball swing against the back of the legs of opposing forward Daniel Walker. The third period slashing major and the fights that followed were a potential turning point as the Battalion overcame a two-goal deficit before losing 3-2.
@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
The previous January in a game against the Sudbury Wolves, former Guelph coach Jarrod Skalde was so frustrated at Merkley arguing with him at the bench after giving away the puck four times on one power play that he banished the rookie to the dressing room. Merkley was also healthy-scratched for disciplinary reasons.
“It’s just a young man learning,” Skalde said at the time.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY (ON THE RECORD)
NHL Central Scouting’s Troy Dumville told NHL.com: “At the end of the day, kids mature and I think teams realize that what you’re getting at 17 is not what you’re going to have at 22. And if you look at what his potential might be as a 22-year-old, it’s pretty attractive. If he matures, and his game comes to where you’re hoping it does, you have yourself a pretty good hockey player and probably one drafted in a position lower than what his talent level really is.”
Guelph coach George Burnett: “He has the ability to play the game at a very high pace. His vision and skill are certainly something that sets him apart from many players. I think when you look at him, his numbers and his skill speak for themselves. Obviously, the upside is tremendous.”
Merkley’s mom Joanne: “He was obsessed with hockey since he could hold a stick and walk. He always wanted to be challenged. He always wanted to be the guy who could kind of make a difference and help the team be better. That’s always the way he’s been, right from when he was little.”