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All in the head: Merkley knows mental game needs work before next step

Ryan Merkley’s elite skill level is undeniable, but there’s a worrisome reason he slid to San Jose in the draft.

Every year there’s one prospect who enters the NHL draft combine with a target on his back. This past summer, it was OHL Guelph Storm defenseman Ryan Merkley. Undoubtedly one of the most gifted offensive defensemen of his cohort, Merkley nonetheless was seen as a risky choice.

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There was his seemingly indifferent attitude towards defense but also questions about his overall maturity and coachability. According to Merkley, those issues came up in all 25 team interviews he had at the combine, but he was ready to discuss them. “You just have to handle it, right?” he said. “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. That was huge heading into the draft.”

One of the biggest X-factors of the 2018 class, Merkley had the talent to be a top-10 pick and the baggage to fall into the second round. The Sharks snapped him up with the 21st overall selection and ended up signing him to an entry-level contract before the OHL season even began. “Ryan was one of the most talented players at his position in this year’s NHL draft, and we were very excited to add him to our organization,” said San Jose GM Doug Wilson. “We were impressed with the way he handled himself as the youngest player at our summer development camp and feel that he has a whole new level he has yet to tap into.”

Merkley is a very intriguing talent thanks to his skating, puckhandling and vision on the back end. With 67 points in 63 games, he finished just one point behind left winger Isaac Ratcliffe (a Philadelphia pick) for the Storm’s scoring title last season. Now it’s all about Merkley’s head. “I have to work on my mental game for sure,” he said. “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.”

If he does that, look out.

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This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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