San Jose Sharks: Ryan Merkley is the team’s next breakout prospect

San Jose Sharks (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
San Jose Sharks (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images) /

The San Jose Sharks don’t have much going for them — in the NHL and their farm system. However, currently in juniors, defenseman Ryan Merkley may be the next big thing for this team.

Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the first round (21st overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan Merkley is a 19-year-old, 5-foot-11, offensive-minded, right-handed defenseman.

Merkley just finished up his fourth full season playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), playing for his third different team in those four years.

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Looking at Merkley’s stats throughout his juniors career, there’s no doubt he’s an offensively gifted player. Over his 248 career OHL games, Merkley has scored 269 points (54 goals, 215 assists). It’s clear that Merkley is an elite playmaker from the blue line at the junior level.

However, Merkley’s character and defensive ability have been in question throughout his career. Merkley has been known to make bad decisions in regards to pinching, not care about his defensive game, and think his skill is superior to that of his teammates and coaches.

This is shown through his career plus/minus of -46, 227 penalty minutes, and the fact that he’s been on three different teams in just four years. However, this past season Merkley has seemed to change, posting a career-best +20 plus/minus and career-low 48 penalty minutes in 60 games.

London Knights head coach Dale Hunter has also been quoted praising Merkley’s off-ice leadership and saying that Merkley’s humor and attitude in the dressing room are loved by his teammates.

While improving his defensive game, Merkley has also continued to grow offensively, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) in a career-low 60 games this season.

Why Merkley will breakout

Merkley has been consistently atop his team in points and assists, either having the most or second-most points on his team all four years in juniors. Over his four seasons in the OHL, Merkley has also been consistently in the top-10 in points and assists by defensemen.

It’s evident that Merkley has the offensive ability to potentially be a force at the point in the NHL. However, his character, questionable decisions, and questionable defense may hold him back from making it to the bigs.

Merkley’s bad decisions and defense can be explained, however. Scouting reports have said that Merkley is a very good skater and can become over-confident in his skating abilities. This leads to him making a bad pinch and creates a scoring opportunity for his opponents.

The Guelph Storm — Merkley’s team for his first two-and-a-half seasons — didn’t seem to care about defense just like Merkley.

In 2016-17, the Storm were the worst team in the OHL and also had the league’s worst defense. 2017-18 wasn’t much different, as they were fourth in their division and gave up more goals than they scored.

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However, being on a new team with a new coaching staff may have fixed this issue as the London Knights had the OHL’s best defense this year and Merkley posted a career-best plus/minus.

In regards to the reports of Merkley’s bad character, coach Hunter may have put these claims to bed. Hunter had nothing but praise for Merkley’s off-ice leadership and locker room presence this past season.

Merkley is seemingly maturing in more ways than one and we may see him in the NHL as early as next season. There’s no doubt that he’ll have a look in the preseason and will most likely play in no lower than the AHL.

If there is an opening for a defenseman due to an injury or trade and Merkley is impressing in the AHL, he’ll be the first one to get the call-up.

I’m not sure if he’ll truly “break out” right away, but with the Sharks’ lack of top prospects, he’s the most likely to breakout. Merkley is a great skater with elite playmaking ability and vision, and very good hands.

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If he can continue to grow defensively, he has the potential to be one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL.