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2018 NHL Draft prospect profile: Ryan Merkley is the draft’s best playmaker

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Merkley is one of this year‘s top talents. When so much of the draft is based on luck, swinging for the fences makes a lot of sense.

Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Ryan Merkley is an incredibly divisive prospect in this draft. His rankings vary a lot depending on how much value is attributed to the reports of his attitude problems. Scouts have trouble seeing in him someone who will have the drive to become a professional; a player that will easily fit in the culture teams work so hard to establish.

Birthplace: Oakville, Ontario
Date of birth: August 14th, 2000
Shoots: Right
Position: Defence
Height: 5’11’’
Weight: 170 lbs.
Team: Guelph Storm (OHL)

Elite Prospects
Image credit: EliteProspects

The psychological element in drafting has always been important, but is now being refined more than ever as teams try to separate which prospect has “it.” Selecting 17- or 18-year-old was always an art, but it’s more and more necessarily becoming a multi-faceted enterprise.

The attitude issues are not the only reason why Merkley is lower than what his talent warrant on a lot of lists. There are also concerns about his defensive play.

The defenceman has an aggressive approach to the game, which means he is often pinching up when the odds are really not in his favour, creating odd-man rushes against and placing his defensive partner and goalie in difficult positions. He is also often caught on his heels puck-watching in the defensive zone, can display a general carelessness away from the puck, and is the author of many puzzling decisions.

It can be argued that this lack of involvement in his team’s defence is a bigger problem than even his aggressive nature.

The problem for NHL teams making their lists ahead of the draft is that there’s another aspect of the prospect‘s game that could have them majorly regret passing on him if they stop their analysis here, or if they give too much weight to the downsides.

Merkley is someone who, without a doubt, got by in his hockey career on his rare talent. And it‘s easy to understand why.

He could.

His offensive game is one of the very best in the draft among players at any position. He should be regarded as the best playmaker of this year‘s selection. Incredibly smart from the back-end, at his best he looks like a chess master moving the opponents pieces around to get the puck from his stick to the back of the net, always a few plays ahead of everyone else, and even at times of his own teammates.

Merkley has a plan in the offensive zone and he knows how to execute it. This is what sets him apart from everyone else. He is incredibly gifted in his innate ability to read the game while simultaneously being hard to read for everyone else.

With the puck on his stick, Merkley makes defenders move out of passing lanes with extremely effective fakes and great patience; an ability he then uses to create great scoring chances for his team.

Plus, his handling ability and skating agility have him easily counter any poke check attempt, go from faking a shot to making a backhand saucer pass in a fraction of a second, and play keep-away from opponents while protecting possession, twisting and turning away from pressure.

The clip above is only a short glimpse into Merkley’s playmaking skills and creativity. But in a few seconds, the defenceman accomplishes more impressive plays than some are able to do in a whole game.

He receives the puck from across the ice while moving to the outside lane, forcing the defender in that direction and down by selling a release. He then uses the space he created in the middle of the ice to skate to the slot, immediately attracting the attention of two other opponents, freeing his teammate at the bottom of the circle for a pass.

He brings the puck back to his forehand, again, not because he wants to fire at the net, but to open the passing lane by making the defender he just beat overextend a second time. He avoids the anticipated pokecheck, and feeds the puck across for a one-timer as the defence closes on him.

Not once does he reveal his intentions during the sequence by looking at or angling towards his final passing target.

Hockey is all about creating and exploiting space. This is how goals are scored. And this is what Merkley is best at. What he tries doesn’t always work out for him — there are inconsistencies — but his potential as a quarterback is simply immense.

Ryan Merkley wears #6 with Guelph Storm and #7 with Canada’s National U18 team.

He doesn’t always have to beat multiple defenders to be effective either, he is also able to make simpler plays that are just as effective due to his high-end vision. Merkley can shoot precisely from the point with different types of releases and always has his head up as he is sliding along the offensive blue line. He can hit teammates’ stick in the slot with remarkable accuracy, getting deflected goals by taking advantage of seams in the opposing coverage.

With the aforementioned abilities, the defencemen can also be a breakout force; able to misdirect and beat forecheckers one-on-one and find his teammates with short passes or accelerate into open ice, carrying the puck through the zones himself.

He is very slippery while skating straight ahead and possesses good speed, making him an offensive zone entry machine. He is not one to dump the puck in, but instead uses quick pivots and delays after getting across the blue line to spring trailing teammates for shots on net off the rush.

The 67 points he put up in 63 games this season are another testament to his offensive abilities. This total was good for fifth in point per game in the OHL for defencemen. The fact that he is one of the youngest players in the draft as an August birthday makes this an even bigger accomplishment.

As a frame of reference to show how impressive this is, Evan Bouchard, another defenceman touted as an offensive machine from the back end, put up 44 points in 68 games in his second OHL season on a better London Knights team. This gives a possible indicator to what 10 more months could do for Merkley’s development.

Bouchard exploded this year with 87 points. It’s a total that could very well be surpassed by Merkley in 2018-19.

Shot assists: pass that result on a shot on goal; Scoring chances assists: pass to mid or high-danger areas that result on a shot on goal; Controlled Entry: carrying the puck or passing it across the offensive blue line. It can be successful or not; Controlled Exits: carrying the puck or passing it across the defensive blue line. It can be successful or not; Break Ups: stripping the attacker of possession in the neutral zone and starting the rush; Controlled Entry Against: how often a defender has the opposition attempt a controlled entry against him. A measure of the tightness of gap control through the Neutral Zone. Higher percentile means less controlled zone entries attempted or tighter gap control; Controlled Entry Prevention: how many of the controlled entry attempts against were prevented by a defender at the defensive blue-line; Corsi: shot attempt differential while at even strength play.
Mitch Brown’s CHL comparison

In the sample tracked by Mitch Brown, the underlying numbers of the two players were comparable this season, even if Bouchard had a year more under his belt.

The Knights defenceman generates offensive chances with the help of his big shot slightly more, but they are equally good at generating more scoring attempts for their team compared to the opposition. And that despite the defensive flaws.

You can also see that Merkley has no equivalent in the CHL in terms of playmaking ability, topping the category out of all of the players tracked. He contributes to his team’s attack both in the offensive zone with his deft passes and by carrying the puck in, doing so as well as anyone with the help of his skating ability and his offensive flair.

He is also somewhat rewarded for his aggressiveness away from the puck as he is above average at break-ups, or the ability to steal possession from opponents in the neutral zone, to immediately spring his attack.

Rankings

Future Considerations: #25
Hockey Prospect: #70
ISS Hockey: #47
McKeen’s Hockey: #31
NHL Central Scouting: #45 (NA Skaters)

Thoughts

There are obvious flaws in Ryan Merkley’s game, and they are well known by now. Every team at the combine was waiting for its interview with the prospect to dump on him all of their concerns about his play, using this opportunity and tailored questions to see what the prospect had to say to defend himself, or, better, if he had the self-awareness to accept responsibility and talk about concrete plans to correct himself in the future.

While we can’t predict what will happen for him, I think we can safely bet on Merkley’s competitiveness; what drives both his amazing plays on the ice and, sometimes, his outbursts. The prospect very likely knows what he has to work on, or at least has learned it sitting through those interviews.

Unless he greatly falls at the draft, he will be picked up by a team that is not risk-averse, one that has the desire to get ahead of the pack by selecting very-high-upside players — not ignoring flaws, but prioritizing talent.

Merkley is top-five offensive prospect in the draft. When so much of the draft is luck in the end, swinging for the fences makes a lot of sense.