So who exactly is Ryan Merkley? Trying to find this out can be harder than it seems. Let’s just start with Ryan Merkley the star. Merkley is the second best offensive defenseman in the entire 2018 draft class. His combination of elite skating and puck skills make him a dynamic offensive force. His I.Q. in the offensive zone is off the charts. He is able to read defensive players extremely well and attack their weaknesses, whether it be an agile dodge of their poke check or a back-door pass. Another key aspect to Merkley’s game is his confidence, which he has a surplus of. He is certainly not afraid to try something creative. This can be spun as ‘making bad decisions’ but I’d rather a player of Merkley’s mold be overaggressive rather than complacent. If Merkley reaches his absolute peak I think he can become a P.K. Subban type player.
Everyone agrees on this. The rest of Merkley is where it gets dicey. It is no secret Merkley isn’t good at defense. He lacks effort and often suffers from mental lapses in his own zone. He can appear unmotivated to exert himself on defense, often avoiding going into corners or battling along the wall and in front of the net. It is a clear problem that will need to be corrected if he wishes to play professional hockey.
The big question mark with Merkley is his character. A lot has been made of Merkley on and off the ice in regards to his personality. It is often hard to separate fact from fiction. Through some digging, I have decided to make two lists, one of the facts and one of the rumors. I’m not here to argue the validity of rumors (they may be true or they may be false) but just want to have a compiled list so everyone can gain an understanding as to what scouts mean by ‘character concerns’.
Ryan Merkley (#2018NHLDraft) gets slashed on the hands and retaliates with a baseball swing to the back of Daniel Walker. Reminds me of a Lawson Crouse retaliatory slash on Josh Brown in 2015 where Crouse didn't get suspended. Will Merkley?
— Generals Live (@GeneralsUpdates) February 5, 2018
-Merkley was suspended three games for slashing
-Merkley has been healthy scratched numerous times for disciplinary reasons
-Kicked off of the bench in the middle of the game for behavioral reasons
-Sent home from a game for behavioral reasons
-Fight with teammates in the locker room
-Tantrums in the locker room and on the bench
-Sent home after team meeting due to behavior prior to being healthy scratched
-Snapping sticks after a teammate missed him for a pass
-Talking back to coach on the bench
-Has caused players to not want to report to Guelph
Obviously, a lot of these seem connected but until there is some evidence or a firsthand witness corroborating the rumors they are just that, rumors.
Merkley gets a really bad rap. When people think of prospects with character issues people immediately point to the guys who never worked out or haven’t worked out in the NHL. Anthony DeAngelo, Josh Ho-Sang, Sean Day, Hunter Shinkaruk, and so on. Although, when looking at some of these players problems leading up to their draft and beyond it is easy to see the connections Merkley has with them.
Josh-Ho Sang is an immediate comparison. Both Merkley and Ho-Sang struggle defensively and have been documented as not listening to coaches in the OHL. Ho-Sang has floundered in the AHL and this past season threw a fit in the press over being treated ‘unfairly’ by the Islanders organization. This is where the disconnect lies between the Merkley and Ho-Sang comparable.
Ryan Merkley has shown self-awareness. Especially during the NHL combine interviews. He knew that the teams were going to ask him about his character and effort level. Merkley has said in interviews countless times he knows he needs to work on his defensive game, strength, and demeanor. He even said he wants to return to the OHL next season to work on these things. From what is out there it seems like Merkley did fairly well in his interviews too. He didn’t shy away or try to hide from the topics, he met them head on and gave honest answers.
Ho-Sang’s arrogance is what has held him back. He thinks he is God’s gift to hockey and the Islanders keeping him in the AHL isn’t about his play it is them treating him unfairly. So from this comparison, Merkley is already in a better place than Josh Ho-Sang, who was taken in the first round and has spent some time in the NHL.
The biggest problem Merkley’s stock faces is his name being tied to anchors like DeAngelo. DeAngelo is a much more toxic person than Merkley. He has been suspended twice for the abuse of an official, once using a racial slur and the other actually physically confronting the ref. He was suspended by the Sarnia Sting for using a homophobic slur towards a teammate.
(Merkley talk starts around 1:48:00)
Merkley has been adamant he gets along with his teammates. Based on how they act toward each other on the ice I would tend to believe him. This obviously isn’t indicative of stuff in the locker room but lack of evidence coupled with Merkley’s adamant denial leads me not to believe this rumor.
With Merkley’s name being attached to guys like DeAngelo it is only fair to look for comparisons for guys who had problems but ended up working out. Phil Kessel has some striking similarities to Merkley character wise.
Kessel was too perceived as arrogant. He often made selfish plays while playing at the University of Minnesota. He also had problems with his teammates and there was actual clear evidence. He called Jack Johnson a dirtbag in an interview and then denied having a problem with him at the combine, a blatant lie. He also didn’t work hard which resulted in a less than stellar performance on the VO2 test.
Kessel would grow up and mature. He was a key member of the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup teams. To be fair he did bounce around before landing in that situation and was a rumored problem in Toronto. It did not get in the way of his ability to perform on the ice though.
Another star who had perceived arrogance issues and didn’t listen to coaches was Jonathan Drouin. Just a couple years ago Drouin walked away from his AHL team and demanded a trade because he felt he wasn’t being treated fairly. He was then suspended and sat out for six weeks before the deadline passed. Then he returned and his Yzerman allowed him back, his coach worked with him, and he ended up becoming one of the most exciting young players in the league. He even contributed to the Lightning’s playoff run that year.
Before I conclude this diatribe I want to point out the situation Merkley is in. When Merkley broke in as a 16-year-old with the Guelph Storm he was asked to be their best player. The team was awful and even though Merkley performed offensively he had an abysmal +/- at -41.
The next year Guelph went through a coaching change and the team improved. The coach the Storm brought in was George Burnett who demands a rigid defensive structure and has been rumored to be hard to play for (Merkley speaks highly of Burnett and commends Burnett’s use of tough love). Burnett has struggled to juggle both being the general manager as well as the coach. Merkley improved offensively and led the team in scoring for the second year in a row.
There have been rumors swirling about Bobby Orr’s agency blackballing Guelph from taking their players. There were also rumors that up to seven players submitted trade request towards the end of the season. Again, these are both rumors. They just prove Guelph isn’t the best place to be right now.
One reason for this article was I felt there needed to be a place where if somebody was looking for all the rumored character issues attached the Merkley they could find them. I am also admittedly one of Merkley’s biggest supporters. I love the player Merkley could potentially become. He has all the skill to become a superstar in the NHL. I recognize the risk attached and the potential that I am wrong. I am just willing to bet on his talent.
People forget Merkley is one of the youngest players in this draft class. He is just a kid and I believe he will mature. I think in an environment with more stability and with the right people around him Merkley will iron out his game and become a stud. He as even said he is looking into finding somebody to help him out with the mental aspect of the game. I really do believe in this kid and would definitely take him between picks 15-25.