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Ryan Merkley: 2018 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; High Risk, High Reward Defenseman

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What is a draft without a boom or bust prospect? For the 2018 NHL Draft, Guelph defenseman Ryan Merkley fits that bill as he has plenty of offensive talents and yet struggles the most on defense. This post profiles Merkley’s prospects for the draft.

Guelph Storm v Windsor Spitfires
Ryan Merkley: Plenty of offensive skills - not much on defense.
Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

Every draft pick in every draft like the 2018 NHL Entry Draft carries some level of risk. There are players who are “safer” than others, players with “high ceilings” of talent, and players who are closer with identifiable talents that will easily translate to the pro game than others. However, there are also players who carry more of it than others. Maybe they are a relatively small player who is a defenseman. Maybe they have an offensive skill set that looks amazing in their league but it is a question whether he has the other tools for the next level. Maybe they have some attitude issues that have formed in public screaming matches with the coach or committing a suspension-worthy act after failing hard on defense. These are risks that have to be weighed against the potential value of that prospect. And all of those apply Guelph defenseman Ryan Merkley.

Who is Ryan Merkley?

Ryan Merkley was born on August 14, 2000 and has played for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League. According the OHL site, Merkley officially stands at 5’11” and weighs 163 pounds and he has a right-handed shot. It is worth noting that he was first overall pick in the 2016 Priority Draft and he has brought a load of production from the back end. According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Merkley put up 12 goals and 43 assists for 55 points in 62 games as a OHL rookie. In this past season, Merkley put up 13 goals and 54 assists for 67 points in 63 games.

The amount of production is remarkable in context. Given his August 2000 birthdate, Merkley was 16 and 17 throughout those respective regular seasons. As one of the youngest prospects in this draft class and in a league where most players are 17 or over, the not-so-large Merkley kept coming up huge on the scoresheet. As a rookie, he finished eighth among defensemen in points and he finished third in points among all OHL defensemen in 2017-18. Merkley made gains in total assists (43 to 54), power play assists (18 to 32!), and power play points (23 to 34) between his two seasons of junior hockey. The sheer amount of power play production and total assists point to this defenseman being very good in man advantage situations and distributing the puck. (Spoiler: Oh, he is. You’ll see soon) He was a factor for Guelph’s own improvement from being a near-basement team in 2016-17 to making the postseason in 2017-18.

Merkley has represented Canada at the under-17 World Hockey Challenge in 2017, he was a part of Canada’s roster in the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tourney last Summer, and he represented the red Maple Leaf again at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships. The assists kept on coming at the international level. While he has not scored a goal, he picked six assists at the Hlinka (a 5 game tourney) and three helpers at the U-18 WCs (another 5 game run for Canada). He also had no issues there as far as I can tell.

However, I cannot say there were no issues in Guelph. Especially when this benching took place in the middle of an OHL season where Guelph needed points to make the playoffs (they did). Based on this March 2, 2018 in Guelph Today by Tony Saxon, Merkley has had outbursts on the ice at points over two seasons, he’s been benched for “injury” and promptly gave his team a reason to sit him again as healthy upon his return. While dated earlier on February 26, this Guelph Mercury article by Paul Osborne noted some more detail about that return game: Merkley got his misconduct from arguring with the referee, his was sat as a healthy scratch while other players were out, and Burnett made some comments implying that the issue is all up to Merkley. On top of all of that, Merkley was punished with a three-game suspension after taking a two-handed slash to a North Bay player after he lost the puck on February 4. While only five potential games were missed, when one looks at all of it together and it is clear why his attitude and character are concerns as well as the word “polarizing” tends to be associated with his prospects. Guelph’s GM and head coach, George Burnett, has been working in junior hockey for over 20 years. I’m going to presume he’s seen pretty much everything at this point. At least a lot. So when he’s benching a player for issues; I don’t think the issue is with him.

These issues are a reason why Merkley is not as rated as high as one would expect for a 17-year old right-shooting defenseman who just put up 67 points in 63 games.

Where is Ryan Merkley Ranked?

Merkley’s production and skillset garnered a lot of attention. As did his other issues. As a result, his rankings have been all over the place.

The biggest tell is with Central Scouting Services, who has dropped Merkley dramatically from the midterm ranking. Given that this season’s issues in Guelph took place in between, it is hard to not discount it as a factor. You can see the same in Kournianos’ rankings where he fell hard throughout the season. Some services think he’s still a first rounder. As others have profiled him, it is easy to argue that he should be - and very well could be in Dallas next month.

What Others Say About Ryan Merkley

As Merkley played in the OHL, Brock Otten’s OHL Prospects is a great place to start. First, check out Otten’s review of Merkley after his rookie season from March 2017. He ranked him second on his list of the most impressive players born in 2000 with this to say (this is a snippet of what stood out):

Why Merkley could be number one: When he’s playing well, there might not be a more dynamic offensive blueliner in the league. He’s currently the rookie scoring leader in the league (for all players, not just defenders) and has consistently been one of the highest scoring blueliners in the league 5 on 5. His skating and his ability to keep the puck on a string are dazzling components to his game. Why Merkley isn’t my number one: I’ve seen Merkley be the best player on the ice. But I’ve also seen him be the worst this year. Turnovers (due to poor decision making, tunnel vision, overhandling the puck) have been a big time issue. As have undisciplined penalties out of frustration. His game has some maturing to do before next year’s NHL draft.

When Central Scouting released their final rankings, he noted Merkley’s low position and had this short comment:

I suppose the first thing people will be talking about is where Ryan Merkley is ranked at #45. Which would put him towards the end of the 2nd round or early 3rd.. But I don’t think it’s necessarily surprising. NHL CSS already had Merkley as an early 2nd rounder on their midterm list and he drops even further now. The talent is there, but the late season shenanigans (including the healthy scratch) were bound to hurt him on a list like this. He’s going to need to have a great U18’s and even better combine interviews to climb back into the first round IMO.

Yikes, talk about a drop. What happened? Well, it appeared that those bad things Otten noted in March 2017 were still issues in Merkley’s game. In his midseason poll, which was posted on February 21, Merkley did finish seventh with only one pollster leaving him out. As usual, the comments are worth reading to get an idea of what Merkley is all about. Five were given; this one by Dominick Taino of OHL Writers fame, stuck out to me:

“A world class skater with world class offensive abilities. If I am down a goal in the last minute, Merkley would be the first player I would send over the boards. There have been doubts about his defensive game and some question whether he cares to put the effort in the d-zone. Sometimes you can question his reactions in certain situations. I just don’t see the improvement I was looking for from him. If I was up a goal protecting the lead in the last minute of a game, I would be looking at my other 5 defencemen first. And therein lies the difference for me between Merkley, Sandin and Bouchard. I would have no issue with the latter two in any situation, but I can’t say the same for Merkley. I am not sure I would use a top-20 pick on Merkley when I am not sure his offensive game would outweigh the defensive liabilities at the NHL level.” - Dominic Tiano

The other four comments were similar in terms of highlighting his offensive skills with some varying level of admission of his defensive issues. But Tiano’s quote really drills down to what a lot of teams will have to weigh in when considering Merkley. I’m curious to know how Merkley will be regarded when Otten does his final media/scout poll for 2017-18. If Otten was not surprised at Merkley falling in the CSS rankings, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up lower on the top ten OHL prospect list.

Speaking of Tiano, he wrote this more detailed profile of Merkley at OHL Writers back in December 2017. He has plenty of praise for his abilities, particularly on power plays. This section of the profile stood out to me:

To begin with, Merkley is a phenomenal skater with excellent speed. He’s strong on his edges with an excellent ability to change direction in a split second. He can beat most players north-south and east-west. He’s also an excellent passer who excels at making quick, accurate short passes or long stretch passes out of his zone.

This makes Merkley very good at clearing the d-zone, but it is not always picture perfect. He’s sometimes caught forcing the play, one that is not always there. He is still prone to turning over the puck, but there have been improvements in that area. A season ago, you could attribute it to playing on the Western Conference’s last place team and trying to do it all himself. He’s a very smart hockey player so he should be able to get that out of his game.

This is interesting as it notes some improvements that Tiano noticed with respect to Merkley’s defense. There is even some praise for part of it. I can buy that being on a bad Guelph team would not help that aspect of his game. However, contrast this with Tiano’s comment at OHL Prospects. There, he still notes that Merkley is still a defensive liability. Did the improvements cease? Did he take a step back? These are things to consider amid appreciating how well he skates and moves the puck.

Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey wrote his usual detailed prospect profile on Merkley back on April 14. As usual, it is worth your time reading it. Two parts of it are worth highlighting. The first one is a positive description of his passing abilities:

Merkley has the skating and passing skill to start the transition game. He is a talented puck handler who can carry the puck out of his own end and lead the transition game. Merkley is also able to make a long home-run pass in transition. He can also quarterback the play from the point. Merkley has great vision and passing skill. He can thread tape-to-tape passes through tight areas, and set up teammates for scoring chances.

I not only agree with Kerr, but he may be understating it here. You’ll see why in a little bit. Still, this is consistent with the vaunted description of a puck-moving defenseman. The second part to highlight is not as positive as it is about his defensive game:

Merkley’s defensive game is the big question mark. He must get stronger, as well as improve his positioning and decision making in the defensive end. Most concerning is the fact that he does not seem to show the same intensity in the defensive end that he does in the offensive end. He can appear to cheat at times, trying to generate offence. Other times he has the “controller disconnected” moments, where he seems to be watching the play happen instead of being involved. Coaching this out of him will need to be a priority for his NHL club.

Given he is officially listed at less than 170 pounds, nobody should be surprised about strength. The rest is a bit of a surprise given that he is a defenseman. Cheating is one thing. Not being aware is another thing. Positioning being a problem is another thing. All together and it is a bad mixture for anyone, much less a defenseman. I’m glad that Kerr made that last point about coaching. Teams interested in selecting him will need to understand that he will be a prospect that will require some more attention, instruction, and even patience as he clearly has a lot to learn. A team will have to determine, in selecting him, whether they can and want to do that.

Jumping into our network of sites, Kevin Papetti of Pension Plan Puppets put together this draft profile on Merkley. He notes that Merkley’s point-per-game rate of 1.06 is one of the highest ever by an under-18 defenseman in the OHL in the last eleven seasons. Only four other defensemen had higher rates. Although that is not a guarantee of anything as two of those four are Ryan Ellis and Drew Doughty and the other two are Ryan Murphy and Mitchell Vande Sompel. It at least provides more context to Merkley’s 2017-18, which makes his production more remarkable. His conclusion is consistent with what I read at Otten’s site and in Kerr’s profile: the offensive skillset is tantalizing but the defensive parts are the big concern. I also agree.

The profile has several .GIFs that show off his talents. That is a perfect segue to look at a little video, which make the best possible arguments for Merkley.

A Little Video

Highlight videos are just that: highlights of the player at their best. They do not go into what a bad shift may look like or even an average shift. That said, Merkley’s highlights do a far better job explaining how good of a passer he is, how well he moves, and his on-ice vision than any of the profiles or anything I could say.

Two videos are worth your time. First, from the mighty bigwhite06, is this OHL highlight video from Merkley’s 2017-18 season. He’s wearing #6, by the way.

Some of the clips are just amazing. Merkley’s shot is legitimate. The first two minutes of his video shows that he has a good slapshot, his wrist shot is even better (e.g. the goal at 5:22) he’s able to fake a shot and continue to shoot, and he’s smartly jumping into spaces when needed. But some of these passes made me do a double take: The diagonal pass after a zone entry at 1:47 was under-pressure. The cross-ice pass at 2:01 for an equalizer that beat two Erie players. The inch-perfect set-up for a re-direction at 2:08. The secondary assist at 2:37 looked like a no-look pass from the high-slot. The move to the high slot and making a pass across his body at 3:07 for a tap-in goal. Eluding heavy pressure with his skating and puck control for a pass to the slot at 3:57. I still don’t know how he got the passes through at 5:44 and 5:49. Parts of this video are accompanied with audio interviews with Ryan Kennedy or The Hockey News and Mark Edwards of Hockey Prospect, where they summarize what Merkley is all about.

It is not all perfect. If you’re looking for some of that “poor defense,” look at 3:28 where his one-on-one defending was just plain bad. At least that part ended with him ringing a shot off the post on a counter-attack. It’s a highlight video so the intent was to show the shot, but that gave an idea of what a defensive concern might be.

The second video is about something that may be talked up by his proponents: his performance at the World Under-18 Championships. Again, he represented Canada and as far as I know, there were no issues there. Here’s a highlight video by Hockey Prospects Center for his tournament play (he’s wearing #7):

That first clip is astounding to me. I don’t think that was a shot attempt, I think he intentionally directed that puck to his teammate for a re-direction. And he did it in stride as a teammate gained the offensive zone. That’s just great stuff. And there’s another seven minutes or so of Merkley doing a lot of good things for Canada. Merkley only had a few points (the first clip and the one at 5:13 are superb assists), so this video also shows off some of his break out passes, setting players up for shots (throughout like 4:02 and three straight back-door attempts starting at 6:48), decisions made after zone entries by him (see 1:28, 2:16) and others (see 2:58), and even some effective defense (4:05). While it is not a shift-by-shift video and this is from a short tournament, it does show more of what he does when he’s not getting on the scoresheet.

Again, both videos are consistent with the praise of his skating, his puck handling, how he views the ice in offensive situations, and especially his passing. To state that he has very good skills really seems like an understatement with some of the passes he attempts and completes amid pressure and the situations. Yes, they are highlight videos, but they showcase why there is so much interest in Merkley at all. It says better than any written profile as to why some services and perhaps some teams are thinking he’s a first-round caliber prospect or has first-round caliber talent. It is absolutely why he’s being profiled here.

An Opinion of Sorts

My take is that Merkley is the traditional “boom or bust” prospect. He is the opposite of Ryan McLeod, who Mike profiled a few days ago. He carries plenty of risk and whoever takes him is going to have to be confident in their abilities to mitigate that risk and set himself up for success. While it will be a challenge to gauge where Merkley will go in this year’s draft, it is easy to rationalize whether it will be high or not.

Those in favor of Merkley have a lot on their side. He has scored at a high rate as a 16-year old rookie and improved as a 17-year old in the OHL. He has demonstrated excellent passing skills while being very skilled on the puck in offensive situations. Yes, he’s on the smaller side, but in a NHL that is increasingly favorable to smaller, skilled players that is not a huge issue. Yes, the defense needs work and that is something that can be worked on. (And if he can’t, then move him to wing or something.) Yes, he has some red flags with respect to his attitude but that can change with experience - he is only 17 after all - and mentoring too. Besides, he ultimately only missed five games in 2017-18 and he did not cause any scenes in the OHL playoffs or at the international level. If Hockey Canada did not think it was an issue, then why should we? Players who can distribute the puck and make reads like Merkley are not common. The proof that it is more than just an eye test-thing is in the production. Go forth, get him regardless of what any ranking says, and smile when he becomes a solid player like other offensive-yet-defensively-suspect prospects like Klingberg and Karlsson.

Those against Merkley also have a lot on their side as evidence. Sure, he has the production but this is all against his age group. A lot of those passes needed to be inch-perfect to work and they will simply not fly against faster, bigger, and smarter men at the professional level. Even if they did, the guy has demonstrated all kinds of observed issues on defense. For a guy who seems so intense on offense, where is it off of the puck? Just because he had a few good stick-checks on a usually-stacked Canada team does not mean he suddenly gets it. The attitude and issues in Guelph point to a possibility that he really may be more trouble than he’s worth. He may not be so receptive to the coaching that he will need to play any kind of competent defense and take his offense to the next level. So he racked up a whole bunch of points. So did Ryan Murphy and Tony DeAngelo, who have yet to make any kind of NHL impact and are similar players in style to Merkley. Rather than hope he’s somehow different and somehow can be a top-caliber defenseman - something he hasn’t shown beyond a power play or an offensive situation; a team should consider someone who can actually play defense well at least at the major junior hockey level and someone who is not going to be a potential pain to deal with so they may be able to be somebody useful in case the offense does not translate. Sure, go get him late in round two but anyone taking him in the first round is making a mistake.

Ultimately, it could be argued either way. There are some other factors that can help sway a decision. Merkley will turn 18 in August and will have to spend two more seasons in major junior. That is a plus in that he will have the time to work on these things before going into professional hockey. A team that can set him up with the right people and get his mind right on defense (and in dealing with others) may possibly be well rewarded down the line. How possible is “possibly?” I don’t know. I can’t answer it. How Merkley handles the interviews at the NHL Combine will really help turn any tide about his draft stock.

Would I want the Devils to draft him at 17th overall? As much as I can defend a decision, I would not recommend it. Tony DeAngelo’s name came up a few times in researching Merkley for this post and it reminded me that I wrote a profile on him back in 2014. To his credit, Merkley is way better on offense than DeAngelo was. I can believe that Merkley’s offense can carry him further than DeAngelo’s. I can see him being a power play specialist, if nothing else. But I don’t see the need for New Jersey to take the risk. My view on this pick is that the Devils should really try to hit big on this one. While the Devils may not be re-building like they were this time last year, they still need to make their first round picks count regardless of position to keep their system potent for the future. This is especially important this year since they only have one pick in the first three rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. If the Devils had more picks and a whole bunch of defensemen prospects in their system that have a real good chance of contributing, then they could afford to roll the dice on Merkley and hope he booms.

But they don’t really have either. Putting a lot of hope into a defenseman whose biggest issue is playing defense seems really risky. There are likely going to be a whole bunch of other prospects - defensemen (especially this year) or forwards - available at 17th overall where the consensus on the player does not include defense being a huge flaw. As much as I can appreciate an offensive defenseman, I do not think expecting someone who can play well off the puck is too much to expect. Especially for someone one hopes can play on a first or second pairing; as much as defensive defensemen need to be at least useful on offense, the offensive-minded must be able to handle the competition too. The other prospects available may not be able to make as many amazing passes as Merkley, but they may be less likely to take a bad penalty after being beaten or frustrated and there will be less of a concern on whether he can be coached up. Putting all of this together, I don’t see the need for the Devils to take this kind of chance. Not at 17th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. If they trade down or pick up a late first or a second rounder and Merkley is around, then it is a different discussion. But for right now, no.

Your Take

That’s my take. Yours may be different. Maybe you would take on the risk and hope that Merkley will boom. Maybe you would not and think he would bust. What do you make of Ryan Merkley? Does the offensive skillset out-weigh the defensive issues? Do those issues look worse given his size and perceived attitude concerns - even if both can be improved? Should the Devils take a chance on him anyway? Where do you think he will go in the draft? If you’ve seen him play for Guelph or for Canada, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Merkley in the comments. Thank you for reading.