When you watch Ryan Merkley with the puck on his stick, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be a top-10 pick in the NHL entry draft. The kid just oozes raw hockey talent. The problem is that there are a number of other factors that are going to come into play when teams consider spending a first round pick on him.
There is no doubting his skill as a puck-moving defenseman. The first overall pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft, Merkley is a dynamic playmaker, with great skating ability both north-south and east-west. His tremendous edge work, pivots and agility allow him to cover a ton of ice and transition from offensive to defensive positioning with ease. He has a quick first step and the ability to shift speeds to catch opponents flat-footed in the neutral zone.
In terms of offensive ability, Merkley is unquestionably elite. When he’s got the puck on his stick he’s one of the most dangerous players in the draft - including the forwards. His puck-handling skills are as good as you’ll see.
Merkley has the vision and passing ability to be an high-end playmaker both at even strength and on the powerplay. He led all OHL defenders with 36 primary assist this season, a total that could have been a lot higher had he been playing with a more talented team around him.
He doesn’t have a rocket from the point, but Merkley has a very good shot and knows how to use it properly. He’s got an accurate and low wrist shot that is often in a perfect position to get through a crowd or be tipped by a teammate in front of the net.
Merkley likes to pinch in at the blue line because he knows he has the ability to recover and get back defensively. This might actually be a hindrance to his game. Merkley trust in his skating so much, that it leads to a lot of ill-advised risk taking - that often ends up in scoring chances for the opponents.
Some will say Merkley’s defensive game is a question mark. Right now, it’s not even that. His defensive game is not good. Through his first season and a half in the OHL, Merkley tracked as one of the three worst defensive players in the entire OHL. That improved over the past 6 months, but not nearly as much as you’d like to see from such a talented player.
To start, he needs to improve his positioning and decision making. He’ll often wander out of position, or push a play that he shouldn’t. He doesn’t look like a player that wants to learn how to play without the puck or within a team system. Add to that the fact that he often looks disinterested on the defensive side of the puck and you’ve got a player that is going to fall out of favor with a lot of scouts.
There is a belief that Merkley trusts in his own skill more than he does in his coaches and teammates - something that could be a huge issue as he tries to make the jump to the next level.
There is a massive gap between his offensive and defensive play - bigger than any we’ve seen in a long while. That is the biggest question when it comes to Merkely as a prospect, will his new team be able to coach enough risk out of his game to make his offensive game worth while?
Ryan Merkley ended the season finishing third in OHL scoring among defensemen with 67 points in 63 games. Though he developed a reputation as a powerplay specialist as a rookie, Merkley impressed with 10 of his 13 goals this season coming at even strength.
Despite being the offensive leader on the Guelph Storm, Merkley finished the season with a negative GF% relative to his teammates - showing just how much of a liability he could be defensively.
What the Scouts Are Saying
“Based on pure skill alone, Merkley is a first-rounder. Unfortunately, There are many layers to this onion.” - Sam Cosentino - SportsNet
Merkley is a high-tempo, smart, offensive-minded defenseman…shifty, with elite skating ability…smooth transitions from forwards to backwards…possesses explosive acceleration, and makes plays at top end speeds…isn’t afraid to lead the rush, and hold onto the puck in hopes of creating a play in the offensive zone…vision up the ice is absolutely elite…impressive when quarterbacking the power play and doing a good job of making consistently accurate breakout passes…has a deceptive slap-pass to teammates around the net…has a knack for getting the puck to the net through traffic with a quick, accurate release…his quick decision making and ability to read the play that really stand out…a good job of judging when to cover the front of the net or to go pressure the puck-carrier behind the net…good job of tracking players across his zone and using his stick to close off their passing options and take away space…will need to hit the weight room and improve defensive zone play…very high ceiling but also some risk…has high-end NHL upside generating offense from the back-end. - FutureConsiderations.com
Merkely plays with intensity but is not to be confused with a physical, shut-down defender. Keeping him stapled to his own slot during opposing possessions above the hash marks seems next to impossible, and he will roam well above the circles to chase the puck. He has difficulty handling bigger forwards in the slot or in the corners, which might explain the floating, and there are times in his own end when he gets too cute with the puck. These issues can be fixed over time, but it remains to be seem how much NHL general managers are willing to overlook the defensive shortcomings of such a rare and gifted puck distributor. - Steve Kournianos/The Draft Analyst
Where He Might Get Drafted
There likely isn’t a more polarizing prospect in the entire draft. There are going to be scouts and development coaches that see Merkley’s raw talent and insist that he should be selected in the top-15. Then there are going to be executives that that drop him down their draft board when they hear the stories about his unwillingness to develop a defensive game. In a league that is more often than not risk-averse, the negatives that come along with Merkley often outweigh the positives.
There is going to be a team that thinks they can develop Merkley to his potential - and my bet is they’re going to be rewarded for it. Just don’t let him fall to the Blackhawks the way Alex DeBrincat did.