Ryan Merkley, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Position: Right Defense
Age on Draft Day: 17.87 Years Old
Height/Weight: 5’11, 170 pounds
2017-2018 Stats (Including Playoffs): 69 GP, 14 G, 59 A, 73 PIM, -35
NHL Central Scouting: 45th (North American Skaters)
Future Considerations: 25th
Craig Button (TSN) (March): 26th
Ryan Merkley is one of the most exciting, interesting, and frustrating prospects in recent memory. Let’s start with the positives first.
Merkley is everything you want in an offensive defenseman. He’s a great skater with the puck on his stick. He keeps the puck close to his body and moves up the ice with rapid stick-handling, making him unpredictable in the routes he will take. Because he has such great agility, he is able to quickly change direction through the neutral zone and find an alternative path through the neutral zone.
In the offensive zone, Merkley may be the best defenseman in the entire draft; yes, including Dahlin. Again, great edgework and elusiveness lead to some creative plays and elongated possessions. He has a good enough shot that he can score from the point, but he truly loves to activate and shoot from below the circles. Here’s a chart from Ian Fleming showing as much.
His shot density below the circles is similar, if not more dense, than it is at the points. And 11 of his 13 goals came from that area. Here are a couple of video examples.
But while he’s a perfectly capable scorer, his passing is truly where the magic happens. There may not be a better player in this draft, forwards included, at setting up teammates for high-percentage. scoring chances. Merkley is incredibly adept at faking a shot or pass, thereby freezing the defense, before skating into open space and finding a teammate. In particular, he does a phenomenal job of selling movement in one direction before sending an unexpected pass across the slot. Here are a whole slew of them, and redundancy is the only reason this video isn’t 10 minutes long.
Now for the bad aspect of Merkley’s game. He is genuinely a liability away from the puck. As Canucks Army notes, Merkley had a poor goal differential compared to his teammates. That’s pretty remarkable when considering how much offense he creates and the fact that he received relatively sheltered minutes in Guelph. Let’s break down why that might be.
First, he is just not a smart defender technically. He often gets lost in his defensive zone coverages. His one-on-one defending is often terrible. He’s very aggressive and loves to pressure the puck, which sometimes is great, but very often results in sloppy defending (look for #7 in the first two clips, then #6 in the third).
It’s one thing for him to struggle with tactics or the technical aspects of defending. With the kind of skillset he has - the great footwork, the advanced processing of how plays will develop, etc. - he can improve in those areas.
But only if he’s willing to. It’s one thing for a player to make mistakes with good intentions. It’s another to play carelessly and selfishly. Here are two specific examples I found in viewings of Merkley, though there are plenty of others.
This is a total non-effort from Merkley. When the puck went into the corner, he had inside positioning. However, he was in no particular hurry to go for the puck or box out the forward. Then, when he loses the race there, he showed no desire to win it back or at least make life difficult for Pezzetta (13). No attempt to pin him to the boards or battle for the puck. Merkley is 5’11 and 170 pounds, compared to Pezzetta’s 6’1, 204 pounds frame. So while he is smaller, this is not David and Goliath. There is no reason Pezzetta should have had such an easy time retrieving that puck and making a pass. Merkley has often shown he has a mean streak - to the point he can take bad penalties - so this is not a matter of being “soft.” It’s selective effort.
This is the one that will really drive coaches nuts. Merkley is the first one up the ice once his team is on the transition. But the instant the opposition claims the puck, he absolves himself of any forechecking responsibility.
At this particular moment, he should be pressuring #98 (Elijah Roberts) as the first man in on the forecheck. To maybe win the puck back, sure, but more importantly because his team is in the middle of a long line change. Instead, he does a complete fly-by and loops behind the opposition net, effectively giving Niagara an incredibly easy zone exit and numbers up the ice while his team is still changing lines. This is a common occurrence for Merkley. He hustles up the ice whenever his team is on the transition, and he does a great job of it. But higher-rated defensemen such as Quinn Hughes and Ty Smith know that they need to put just as much effort into doing their part when the other team gets the puck back. For Merkley, it’s selective effort.
I showed that clip to someone who has coached teenagers at a relatively high level without providing any context, and here is what he said to me:
“Who is he? Looks like a juniors all-star who never gets held accountable for not playing D either, since he loops all the way AROUND the net and then starts his coasting back.”
And that’s where we transition into the massive red flags. Merkley has been a prodigy for much of his lifetime, and he was drafted first overall in the OHL Draft back in 2016. Some scouts believe his success has led to a certain level of arrogance and entitlement. The “character concerns” tag has a wide berth of meanings. Sometimes it’s a total lost cause such as Johnny Manziel. Other times it’s a rigid, humorless curmudgeon complaining about PK Subban daring to be fun and personable. I reached out to an Ontario area scout for a gauge on where Merkley lies.
“He’s just a s***head, and I’m his biggest fan,” the source said.
As previously shown, Merkley often abdicates himself of defensive responsibility. He gets pouty and abrasive on the ice when things don’t go his team’s way, and that carries over off the ice. He does not have any signature moments of blatantly infantile behavior, as Tony DeAngelo does, but on a day-to-day basis Merkley is a bigger headache not just for his coaches, but his peers as well. It got bad enough this past season that Guelph scratched him as a disciplinary measure at time when he was the team’s leading scorer.
“Tony has the maturity of a 15 year old. Ryan has the maturity of a 12 year old. At least teammates could tolerate (DeAngelo),” the source said.
In a world where Merkley has no perceived character concerns, we’re grouping him with the likes of Hughes, Wahlstrom, and Boqvist as a borderline top-five selection. Instead, he may drop into the second round.
The good news is that he is only 17 years old. He has an awful lot of growing up to do, but also plenty of time to do so.
“(Merkley) needs to go to a team that coddle and tolerate him for a while,” the source said. “He’s going to need a lot of work. In some cases work outside of a normal coach or management expertise. Then it’s a case of, is this work worth it? And how much work is too much?”
We have him ranked 13th in this draft, though there are good arguments to be made for dropping him to 15th. In the second half of the first round, though, I believe the upside surpasses the risk. If Merkley gets his act together, then he could become a superstar. That possibility justifies foregoing other players who have a somewhat higher likelihood of reaching the NHL.
And no team is in a better position to take that gamble than the Rangers. They have 10 selections in this draft, including three in the first round. They have as good of a head coach as you’re going to find when it comes to dealing with complicated personalities, and there are others in the organization - Jed Ortmeyer, Gordie Clark, Adam Graves, etc. - who are similarly stern but hands-on and approachable. Their sheer number of draft picks is a safety net that affords them the opportunity to swing for a grand slam, and if he’s around at 26th overall (or they trade up a few slots) he would be a great selection.
What Others Have Said
Brock Otten, OHL Prospects:
“Those who love him believe that with maturation and tutelage, his raw talent can be harnessed and that he possesses some of the highest upside of any player in the draft. Those who dislike him... point to the immaturity as the reason why his faults will remain faults, preventing him from being an NHL player.”
Corey Pronman, The Athletic:
“Merkley is one of the best hockey players at 17 years of age I’ve ever seen.”