The Sharks swung for the fences with their first-round pick, selecting high-risk, high-reward defenseman Ryan Merkley with the No. 21 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft on Friday in Dallas.
Merkley, 17, is a self-described offensive defenseman and the fourth-youngest OHL player eligible for the draft. He scored 67 points (13 goals, 54 assists) in 63 games with the OHL's Guelph Storm this past season, the sixth-highest total of any draft-eligible defenseman that played in Canadian major junior this season, according to EliteProspects,
NHL Central Scouting ranked Merkley as the No. 21 North American prospect in its midseason rankings, but Merkley fell to No. 45 in its final rankings. That was in large part due to perceived maturity issues and concerns about the defensive side of his game, which didn't stop San Jose from taking a chance on the talented teenager.
"Well, we came in here looking for difference makers," San Jose general manager Doug Wilson told NBCSN's Kathryn Tappen. "We've replenished our team, we've got a lot of core guys, but the game has changed a little bit. Finding a puck-moving defenseman like this that's got a little risk-reward to him, we think it's a good thing for us."
Merkley was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the OHL Draft in 2016, and scored 55 points in 62 games in 2016-17. He won the Emms Family Award as the OHL's rookie of the year, and only one other draft-eligible OHL defenseman (Evan Bouchard) scored more points than him this season.
But, he was also benched for a period following a public argument with his coach in a game that season against the Sudbury Wolves, according to the Sudbury Star, and was healthy-scratched at another point. This past season, he was suspended three games in February for an ugly, retaliatory slash in a game against the North Bay Battalion.
"Scouts say the immaturity comes in many forms – overstaying shifts, cavalier disregard for playing defence, being petulant or ill-tempered when things don’t go his way, being hard on teammates, clashing with coaches and a perceived lack of self-awareness and accountability," TSN's Bob McKenzie wrote in his final draft rankings.
Merkley is well-aware of his reputation. He told reporters in Dallas that his agent, CAA's J.P. Barry, set him up with a sports psychologist to work on the mental side of his game. He said that he thinks he needs another season in the OHL before he's NHL-ready, in order to "show everybody that I can grow up and I can get better defensively."
"I know what I've done wrong," Merkley said. "I know my my bad habits. I know the areas I've got to work on for sure if I want to get to the next level [and] I've got to fully invest in getting better and showing everyone what I can do and completing my all-around game."
It will probably be a while before Merkley plays a meaningful game in San Jose. He'll need to put on more muscle and will likely require some seasoning before suiting up with the Sharks, but Wilson said that the blueliner was simply too good of a player to pass up on.
"He's got high-end talent," Wilson said. "We think he's a difference maker. We spent quite a bit of time with him, and we believe in him."
Merkley is the first defenseman the Sharks picked in the first round since 2013, when San Jose selected Mirco Mueller No. 18 overall. His selection fills a hole in the organization's pool of defenseman, after the Sharks traded prospect Julius Bergman on Tuesday and placed veteran Paul Martin on unconditional waivers in order to buy out his contract on Friday.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Merkley was the second-youngest player eligible for the draft. He is not, but is the fourth-youngest OHL player, and the youngest OHL defenseman. We regret this error.