Out of his pads, Sharks prospect Ryan Merkley looked like someone who just turned 18.
Well, that’s because he did.
The right-shooting defenseman became old enough to buy a lottery ticket on Aug. 14, 53 days after San Jose selected him in the first round, No. 21 overall, at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas. The Sharks list Merkley as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds on their training camp roster. Naturally, one difference between junior hockey and the pros stood out to the teenager.
“The strength. These guys are a lot bigger, stronger, quicker,” Merkley said Monday after the Sharks’ second scrimmage of camp. “[Monday was], what, my fourth practice with these guys who have been doing it for years. The way they move and pass the puck and work the corners is pretty unreal.”
In his pads, he’s looked like a teenager at times, too. Late in Monday’s scrimmage, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns pounced on Merkley’s errant clearing attempt from the right corner of the defensive zone, and wristed a shot just under the crossbar. Merkley also got caught up the ice at times as well, ensuring an odd-man rush the other way.
But the talent was on display, too. More often than not, the defenseman jumped into the play at the right time. He learned from his mistakes, too: At one point after the aforementioned odd-man rush, Merkley hustled back to deny forward prospect Ivan Chekhovich on a breakaway, preventing the winger from getting a clean look at the net.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said that’s just part of the development process.
“It’s about him getting used to the speed, and the time, and that not ever play has to be a great play,” DeBoer said Monday. “But that’s part of being a young defenseman, and I really like what I’ve seen so far out of him.”
Merkley could get another taste of that speed on Tuesday, in the Sharks’ preseason opener at SAP Center against the Anaheim Ducks. Early preseason games don’t feature the full cadre of NHL regulars, but the vast majority of Anaheim’s traveling roster for the game played professionally at one level or another last season.
Even for a player of Merkley’s pedigree, that’s a step up. He has spent the last two seasons with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), one of the top-three major junior leagues in Canada. He scored 67 points in 63 games last year, the third-highest total among OHL defensemen. It was also the highest mark of any under-18 blueliner by 22 points.
Guelph is likely where he will return soon, as he continues to develop on and off the ice. His talent was never in question, but the talented defenseman slipped to the back-end of the first round, at least in part, due to perceived maturity issues.
He was benched in his first OHL season following an argument with his coach, and he was suspended three games last season for a retaliatory slash in a game against the North Bay Battalion. That didn’t deter the Sharks from selecting Merkley, who was also one of the youngest draft-eligible players.
San Jose has time to be patient. After the acquisition of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, the Sharks aren’t hurting for depth down the right side. For now, the focus lies on ensuring Merkley soaks everything in before returning to Guelph.
“We had [Merkley] stay with [Burns during July’s rookie camp], and he couldn’t believe it,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “[Seeing] everything he eats, how he trains. For an 18-year-old kid to see a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and that’s what he does? You go back to junior and remember what you just learned.”
Merkley said he’s spent most of camp observing how the Sharks veterans train and practice. If he ultimately suits up Tuesday against the Ducks, he’ll get a chance to show what he’s learned in a professional game.
The 18-year-old could get used to playing in the cities of the Pacific Division. He said he was hoping to play somewhere warm when he entered the draft, and that he’s enjoyed his time in San Jose so far.
Will that make another winter in Ontario harder to deal with?
“I could leave that behind for sure,” he said with a laugh.
If all goes as planned, Merkley may get to spend a winter in California soon enough.