Why Ryan Merkley was the most interesting first-round NHL Draft pick

Watch as the San Jose Sharks select Ryan Merkley with the 21st pick in the NHL Draft.

Rasmus Dahlin will reinvigorate a Buffalo Sabres franchise that has been dormant for seven years. Andrei Svechnikov should bring an elite scoring winger to a Carolina Hurricanes team that has struggled to score. Montreal got the centre they wanted in Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall and Brady Tkachuk adds character to a flagging Ottawa team.

But the most interesting pick of the first round was at 21st overall.

Ryan Merkley was the most polarizing player of the first round, hands down. While he was the first-overall pick of the 2016 OHL Draft and has put up 122 points in 125 games with the Guelph Storm, he was reportedly on a lot of teams’ do-not-draft lists. A first-round — and probably top 10 — talent in a vacuum, Merkley is a high-risk, high-reward prospect who wasn’t even a top-31 pick on draft guru Sam Cosentino’s mock.

There are a few reasons why he’s viewed as such a volatile pick despite all his talent. First, Merkley is an all-offence guy from the blue line at this point and can sometimes be a liability at the defensive end. Second, he’s had a few on-ice incidents that have brought his composure and coachability into question, such as this retaliatory two-handed slash on Daniel Walker that led to a three-game suspension.

Before that, Merkley had an episode in a game in which he turned over the puck multiple times on one power play and then visibly argued at the bench with his coach, Jarrod Skalde, who became so frustrated with his rookie that he banished him to the dressing room for the game.

Merkley’s even been a healthy scratch a few times.

“We spent a lot of time with him,” San Jose GM Doug Wilson told Elliotte Friedman on the draft floor. “We asked him the tough questions, we liked the way he handled it. He’s one of the youngest kids in the draft, he’s got a tremendous upside to him with his skill set. The answers he gave us made us feel comfortable looking him in the eye that he wants to be a great player and hockey is what he wants to do. Might be a few things that maybe he’d do differently, but we’re very proud to have him. We really are.”

With an Aug. 14 birthday, the 17-year-old Merkley is among the younger players in this draft, and he said his agent J.P. Barry is setting him up with a psychologist to help him control some of his frustrations.

“I know what I’ve done wrong. I know my bad habits, I know my areas I have to work on for sure if I want to get to the next level now,” Merkley told the media after being picked. “I have to fully invest in getting better, showing everybody what I can do, completing my all-around game.”

He won’t jump right to the NHL and can certainly be described as a project player at this point. It was believed if any team took a shot on him in Round 1, it would have been someone with multiple picks in the round, or a bevy of assets on Saturday. That way, you could take the risk and potential pay off in Merkley, but wouldn’t put all your eggs in his basket.

San Jose is not one of those teams, which is the most surprising thing about this pick. The Sharks held the 21st-overall pick and nothing in either the second or third round.

When Wilson traded for Evander Kane at the trade deadline, that too was viewed as a risky pick up. But Kane played and fit in well, scoring four goals in the first nine playoff games of his career, and the team rewarded him with a seven-year, $49-million extension. Their dressing room is regarded as a strong one, and the players never had a problem with a player many fans had doubts about.

The questions around Merkley are entirely different than the ones around Kane, but maybe this is the kind of environment that will suit his development best.

“He’s a young man,” Wilson said of Merkley. “I think watching him play he just has to channel some of his frustrations a little bit differently, just because he wants to compete and win so badly.

“We think getting him in with our group — and we’ve got a great development staff — we see a real high-end in this player.”

Merkley is a long way from becoming the kind of impact player that, say, Brent Burns is, but make no mistake, that is his upside. If the improvements in his mental game come, this could be the steal of the 2018 draft.

“Offensive guy, power play, I like playing with the puck, setting up teammates,” Merkley said. “I like to create, take chances.”

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