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Sharks prospects to watch: Why Ryan Merkley still has time to develop

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Sharks prospects to watch: Why Ryan Merkley still has time to develop

Editor's Note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with Ryan Merkley. 

Doug Wilson’s first 2018 NHL Draft pick was a one-timer from the blue line. The Sharks general manager conceded that fact last June after selecting super-talented, equally mercurial defenseman Ryan Merkley No. 21 overall.

Wilson’s gamble raised some eyebrows, viewed as both high risk and high reward.

“We were looking for difference makers,” Wilson said (via Bay Area News Group) shorty after making the pick. “At the No. 21 spot, you have to take a little bit more risk. We spent a lot of time with this kid and we feel comfortable.”

Wilson was instantly cool with Merkley’s skill, as an offensive-minded defenseman and true blue-chip prospect. He grew comfortable adding a teenager with on-ice transgressions to his name, some history of insubordination and a selfish reputation.

The Sharks got a top-10 talent far lower in the draft order, and would glean great value if Merkley realizes his vast potential.

There’s a slim chance dividends pay out this upcoming NHL season, if Merkley can floor folks in training camp and crack the Sharks regular-season roster. That’s a big if and a big ask for someone so young, with so many established pros at his position. Here’s what to expect from someone many consider the Sharks’ best prospect.

Ryan Merkley

Draft year, position: 2018, first round (No. 21 overall)
Position: Defenseman
Shoots: Right
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 170 pounds
2018-19 team: Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Skill set

Strip away, for a moment, Merkley’s many red flags. Focus only on his talent, and one thing becomes crystal clear: The kid belongs.

Sure, there are lapses on the defensive end and he’s a smidge undersized, but Merkley has all the talent and skill required of NHL defensemen capable of impacting both ends of the ice. He has great vision and offensive instincts, accumulating points faster than most as his position. Merkley also is an accurate passer and playmaker who thrives going forward.

There’s little question he needs work on the other end, as he must prove consistently effective there and not put pucks in harm’s way.

Training-camp proving ground

Merkley doesn’t have to dominate in his second NHL training camp. He must, however, show growth and development from last preseason to this one, a stretch spent mostly in Canadian major junior in the Ontario Hockey League. San Jose has put significant effort into Merkley’s development, well beyond ice work, and wants to see progress.

Merkley lived with Brent Burns during the Sharks’ prospect development camp last summer, allowing him to see firsthand how hard the former Norris Trophy winner works and trains to maintain greatness. Burns and Merkley were drafted years apart, but in roughly the same point in the first round. They grew up in Ontario towns just two hours part and play similar styles of hockey at the same position, so emulating Burns would help fast-track Merkley’s development process.

Best-case scenario

Merkley’s a right-handed defenseman. Same for Burns. And Erik Karlsson. So, yeah. There are some roadblocks impeding significant minutes with the Sharks now and for the foreseeable future.

The soon-to-be 19-year old could still force his way onto the NHL team’s roster by showcasing great skill constantly enough to take a spot on the third defense pairing. He’d likely have to wrestle the gig from Tim Heed, who just re-upped with the club on a one-year deal.

Merkley would add instant offense to that group, just as Burns and Karlsson do on the top two pairs. NHL experience could possibly accelerate his development playing with and against the world’s best, making him a contributor with great upside on an entry-level contract or a more valuable commodity on the trade market.

Worst-case scenario

Great talent lays fallow, with on-ice efforts overshadowed by more of the antics that decreased his draft stock and built an unwelcome reputation.

The Sharks want progress from the prodigious talent, even if a loaded defensive depth chart doesn’t have room for him yet. A rough showing in Sharks training camp and a ho-hum season in junior hockey -- any signs of stagnancy or regression, really -- would be a disappointment for someone the Sharks believe can be a quality NHL player.

Realistic expectations

Merkley stuck around quite a while during last year’s training camp, even after the junior season started. The Sharks wanted him to learn from Burns and Karlsson and a locker-room culture known for its professionalism. They added him to the San Jose Barracuda roster on an amateur tryout late last season, after the junior season was over.

Merkley should’ve gained valuable experience there that he can build upon in 2019-20, a season he likely will spend in the OHL with a chance to represent Canada at the World Juniors this winter.

[RELATED: Can Sharks' Ferraro go straight from college to NHL?]

That isn’t a terrible thing. The Sharks want him to play, and he could get more from significant ice time in junior over being the Sharks’ sixth or seventh defender.

Merkley should be better now, with last year’s seasoning and a trade in the OHL now behind him. His best remains ahead. The teenager should post big numbers this season, grow stronger defensively and be ready to validate Wilson’s gamble the following year.

Sharks feel they're rounding into shape with three-game winning streak

Sharks feel they're rounding into shape with three-game winning streak

SAN JOSE - For the first time in a long time, the Sharks looked like, well, the Sharks.

You know, the team fans had become accustomed to watching over the last several seasons. The team that can go up against a tough Western Conference opponent and put on a show. The team that has, also, been pretty absent for the majority of the current season.

San Jose didn't just tally their third straight win on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. They defeated a really good team by playing solid 60-plus minutes of hockey. And in the end, they were rewarded with a 2-1 shootout victory -- a victory they can feel proud of. 

"I think this is the first game where, right from the start, that no matter what the score was, we felt like we were playing our game and we weren't too worried about what they were doing," Erik Karlsson said after the win. "It feels like we're finally starting to look like the team we're supposed to be."

Despite winning their previous contest 6-5, the Sharks were not happy with their overall effort. Going up on a team 4-0 in the first period and then getting outscored 5-2 for the rest of the game isn't going to make any team happy. So while San Jose didn't score as many goals on Saturday against Nashville, they were significantly happier with their 60-minute effort. And when the Predators tallied the first goal of the night during the second period, the Sharks kept grinding until Tomas Hertl buried the equalizer in the third frame.

"One of the better efforts from our group," captain Logan Couture observed. "They had a few chances, but I thought we had better looks. We stuck with it and got that goal to tie it up, which was big."

Hertl himself agreed. "I'm really happy about our team tonight because all 60 minutes were great," he said. "It was the best game of the season, against a really good team."

That's the real kicker there -- that the Sharks beat a good team. Sure, they had a two-game winning streak going into Saturday's contest. But those were wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild, two clubs who have been struggling just as the Sharks have. 

To beat a playoff contender like Nashville is what San Jose needed to boost their confidence.

"We needed to beat a good team like this," head coach Peter DeBoer said. "We knew it would be a good test. We've put together some good spurts of hockey here over the last week. I like some of the things we've been doing but we haven't been doing it enough. We haven't done it against a team like that this year. There were a lot of good signs. Hopefully, we can turn the corner here."

Which is, of course, the next step. The Sharks close out their current homestand against the Pacific Division-leading Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday and still have a ways to go before they get to .500 hockey for the first time this season. San Jose's best bet is to keep playing exactly as they did on Saturday against the Predators.

[RELATED: What we learned from Sharks' shootout win vs. Predators]

"We have to, every night, play like that because we need the points right now," Hertl said. "But It was a really great effort. I think we deserve the two points tonight. We have to just keep going."

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's shootout win at home

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's shootout win at home

SAN JOSE – Things didn’t work out too well for the Sharks the last time they faced off against the Predators. This time around, they came to fight.

San Jose put up quite the effort against the tough Central Division club to take a very exciting 1-1 game into overtime.  In the end, it was Timo Meier with the lone marker in the shootout to give the Sharks a 2-1 victory – their third win in a row.

Here are three takeaways from Saturday night's game.

A goalie battle. Who knew.

With both Martin Jones and Juuse Saros going into Saturday’s game with goals-against averages worse than .900, it’s pretty impressive there wasn’t a scoring frenzy. Instead, both netminders put on quite a show – yes, even the home team’s starter.

Compared to some of the games San Jose has played recently, Jones played pretty darn well Saturday night. He was particularly impressive during the Sharks' third-period penalty kill when he stopped two Nashville chances that could have easily broken the tie. After a couple of games where he’s given up the game-winning goal late in the third and erased the positive work San Jose’s offense has done, Jones put up a solid, winning performance on Saturday. 

Setting the pace

San Jose knew they had a tough test ahead of them with the Predators coming to town. The Nashville squad is both a tough team to beat AND was sure to be extra angry coming off of a 9-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. But instead of allowing the Preds to set the tone of the game early on, San Jose gradually built up the pace on their own terms, 

This was a significant improvement over how the Sharks played in Thursday's game against the Wild when they dominated the first period and then lost control over the next 40 minutes. San Jose’s energy built up with every minute of the third period and made for a very entertaining period of overtime. 

Sticking with it

In past games, the Sharks have sat back when the opposition has scored the first goal. So when they couldn't convert on a power-play opportunity less than a minute after Filip Forsberg scored the opening goal on the evening, it looked as though San Jose might have lost their mojo for the rest of the night.

But the Sharks regained their momentum and continued chipping away at Saros, who was standing on his head as San Jose's skaters crowded him. That relentless push finally paid off when Tomas Hertl found the back of the net in the third frame.