Ryan Merkley was prepared. On top of the usual pressures a teenager would face when walking into a room filled with NHL executives, Merkley went to the draft combine with a target on his forehead.
One of the most gifted talents available in this draft cohort, the Guelph Storm defenseman also brings the most red flags with him.
“Anyone you talk to about him, there’s going to be a ‘but…’ ” said one scout. “His ability to skate and make plays – not many players are like him. But everyone is asking if he’s the next Anthony D’Angelo, with the bad attitude and the lack of emotional control. Defensively he has to get better – at times it seems like he’s bored with defending.”
Merkley spoke with 25 teams at the combine and, wouldn’t you know it, all 25 asked him about his attitude and his defense. This was no shock for the Storm D-man, so he went in prepared.
“You just have to handle it, right?” Merkley 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.”
In a draft class dominated by mobile blueliners, Merkley would be a welcome addition to any NHL team with the offensive skills he possesses. With 67 points in 63 games, he fell just one point short of the scoring lead in Guelph to left winger and Philadelphia Flyers pick Isaac Ratcliffe. Merkley also led the entire OHL in power play assists with 32. He also looked pretty good for Canada at the world under-18s and at the CHL Top Prospects Game.
“I rise to the occasion,” he said. “I like playing against better competition, so something I have to work on is consistency; bringing it every day no matter who the competition is.”
Unlocking the full potential of a whip-smart hockey mind with the feet to match is the mission here. Merkley could be the next Ryan Ellis, or he could be the next D’Angelo. It’s hard to rip on a teenager for being moody and immature, but in the high stakes world of pro sports, it matters to teams and Merkley knows it.
“I have to work on my mental game for sure,” he said. “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.”
Luckily, Merkley has a good coach in Guelph. George Burnett is a two-time OHL coach of the year who led Guelph to a league title in 1998 and Cape Breton to an AHL title before that.
“Burnett had P.K. Subban in Belleville and P.K. used to drive him over the edge some nights,” said another scout. “But they found a way to make it work. George is a helluva coach.”
And he’s not soft on his guys. But there’s a reason for the tough love and it has already become apparent to Merkley in his one year under Burnett, who was brought in to stabilize Flint as GM the season before.
“He was hard on me,” Merkley said. “He disciplined me a few times and made me a better player and person. He’s been great for me.”
The ultimate question revolves around Merkley’s draft slot. It is truly an unknown right now, as you need to find a team that is willing to work with him and hope that the defense and the maturity come together. Merkley could go 10th overall, he could go 31st, he could even drop to the second day and it wouldn’t be too surprising. The youngster has expectations for himself, but he’s in the dark, too.
“I mean, I hope early,” Merkley said. “But I have no idea what’s going to happen. I believe I’m a first-rounder, but we’ll see. It’s a crazy day.”