Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley has yet to appear in an NHL game, but the 19-year-old already has had a fair amount of exposure to some of the top players in the sport.
Months after being selected with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Merkley joined the Sharks for training camp, during which he shared the ice with some of the best players to ever wear the teal sweater.
"It's incredible getting in that dressing room when you're sitting beside [Brent Burns], Erik Karlsson, looking across at [Logan] Couture, [Joe] Thornton," Merkley said on the latest episode of the San Jose Barracuda's "Next Wave" podcast. "A guy like [Patrick] Marleau would be in there early in camp when I was there.
"It's certainly nerve-wracking, for sure. I remember, I think it was my first year, I went to go live with [Burns] for a couple weeks early there. I think it was just me, Karlsson, Thornton and Burns on the ice and making that first pass to Karlsson, I think I put it right in his skates. I felt terrible. Just little stuff like that. But they make you more comfortable coming in the next year. Just talking to you nice and easy, they remember me -- it's awesome."
You've seen him rock the teal during Sharks preseason games and a few #SJBarracuda playoff games, but this year you can expect to see a lot more of @ryan_merkley in San Jose! Get to know Merks in the latest episode of "Next Wave".
📺: https://t.co/5XXXqQ4TLD pic.twitter.com/P2EUqJ8wGp— San Jose Barracuda (@sjbarracuda) July 23, 2020
Naturally, of those Sharks veterans, Merkley spent the most time with Burns, where he got to see firsthand what it takes to become one of the top defensemen in the NHL.
"It was terrifying," Merkley recalled with a chuckle. "He's a big body, a big presence. A lot of energy. He's awesome. He was so much fun to be with and be around. Hanging out with him at the rink and then going home with him. He's always treating his body well, eating well. I got it pretty good there for the two weeks I was with him, but it was just crazy getting to see a guy like that of his caliber. Seeing how he works day in, day out.
"Coming in as an 18-year-old kid and he's a former Norris Trophy winner from a year or two before that, probably at the high peak of his career, it's crazy that he would spend time with me and take the time to get to know me and welcome me, make me more comfortable. It helped me a lot, for sure."
Burns is fairly particular about his diet, and when he's home in Texas, he prefers meat hunted on the 420-acre ranch he and his family maintain there that is populated with animals such as white-tailed deer, antelope and wildebeest. Though Merkley wasn't worried about what he might eat while staying with Burns in San Jose, there was something that provided a bit of trepidation prior to arrival.
"No, I trusted him," Merkley explained. "The meat was incredible. What he served up was, obviously, it was high-end quality meat. I was more skeptical -- because I was watching the videos of his ranch in Texas with all the snakes and stuff -- that was my biggest fear was the snakes. I saw the basement video of him and all the snakes, but thank god that's not there in San Jose."
For a young player, spending time with such accomplished veterans can only help with the adjustment to the pro level. Surely, the Sharks' top prospect benefited from that experience, and Merkley's confidence certainly must have grown as a result.
Well, maybe not when it comes to snakes.