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.
Draft year, position: 2018, first round (No. 21 overall)
Weight: 170 pounds
2018-19 team: Peterborough Petes (OHL)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.