We’ve reached the summit of our nine-part San Jose Sharks prospects’ deep dive. At the top of the current crop of would-be NHLers is Ryan Merkley, the team’s first blue-chip prospect since Timo Meier. Merkley comes with plenty of concerns — his lack of strong defensive play and potential bad attitude among them — but he’s spent time and energy fixing those weak spots since his draft day. There’s no denying his inherent talent, but there are certainly questions about his career trajectory. When we put everything together, though, it’s difficult to see how he does not succeed in the NHL. Everything is coming up Merkley, and in this final installment we’ll explain why.
If you haven’t already, check out the rest of the series (which starts here, see all the parts below). We’ve peeled back the proverbial onion layers on 33 Sharks’ prospects — note that this series does not include members of the 2020 draft class, which we’ll cover in more detail as they progress in their careers.
Ryan Merkley – D
Merkley is the San Jose Sharks’ most publicized and polarizing prospect. Detractors point to the broken sticks, a questionable attitude, and lack of defensive ability. Believers hype his impressive point totals, otherworldly passing ability, and recent reports that illustrate his improved self-discipline.
Draft-day scouting reports show what makes him special relative to the rest of the Sharks’ prospect pool (save for maybe one or two members of the 2020 draft class).
The word that appears the most after Merkley’s own name is “puck.” That makes sense: He’s always got it. Standout descriptors don’t jump out at us, but we can clearly see signs of an exciting player. “Speed,” “passes,” “great,” “quick,” “ability,” and “accurate” are all fairly common in his scouting reports. These words reinforce the idea that Merkley makes not just good, but great things happen.
Unlike other skaters in the Sharks’ pipeline, Merkley’s reports are almost devoid of noncommittal adjectives, like “good” and “solid.” Instead, we see things like, “question” and “issues” and “caught.” This lexicon has all the makings of a risky draft pick. And yet…
The other word that appears often here but not in other Sharks prospects’ reports? “NHL.” Plenty of neutral observers see a future NHL player in Merkley despite his warts.
Draft Research Says Merkley Season Is Nigh
Namita Nandakumar’s draft research backs this notion up. About nine of every 10 first-round skaters eventually play 10 NHL games. Almost 80% of those players do so by the end of their D+3 season. Eighty-six percent of first rounders play their first NHL game by the same milestone. Past performance is not predictive of future gains, but Merkley would be in a pretty slim minority if he didn’t suit up for more than a handful of games with the big boys this year.
If and when he does make his NHL debut? That would put Merkley in the “boom” part of the “boom-or-bust” path.
What does a boom career look like for the young blueliner?
This prospect model uses previous production given a player’s age and league to predict the path to the NHL that maximizes NHL impact. The APPLE model thinks Merkley has a range of outcomes between top-pair NHL defenseman and elite NHL defenseman. Because of Merkley’s strong track record of scoring in the OHL, the model gives him a 100% chance of making the NHL this coming season.
A 100% chance of making the league is a bit outlandish. The model creator himself admits that it’s lacking confidence intervals and degrees of uncertainty. We can surmise that even if Merkley isn’t an utter lock to make the NHL this year, he’s got a great chance to do so. By lining him up alongside recently drafted peers (which is what this model has done on a much larger scale), we can see just how he’s separated himself from historical comparisons.
These defensemen were all taken in the first round, around No. 21, which is where the San Jose Sharks selected Merkley. Each of them played his first NHL game during his D+3 season, the year Merkley is entering. What sticks out at you, other than Merkley’s scoring rates? Other than Travis Sanheim, none of these other blueliners really comes close to matching Merkley’s offensive output. He’s simply in a class of his own here.
The players in this group played 17, 30, 15, and 49 regular-season NHL games during their debut year. The 2020-21 NHL season will feature just 56 regular-season games. If we extrapolate Merkley’s upcoming playing time for a shortened season, a reasonable expectation is that he plays anywhere from 10 to 40 NHL games this year.
Merkley’s scoring rates, his vision and unique playmaking ability are undeniable. He’s a gifted offensive blueliner with a knack for transforming routine passes into scoring chances. This is the stuff prospect models pick up: Quantifiable player output, typically in the form of point-per-game scoring. Where these models fall short is in evaluating the other side of a player’s game. What of the defense, an especially important skill set for defensemen?
Merkley Has Improved Defensively
In this regard we find, again, that hope springs eternal. Doug Wilson Jr. has been very pleased with Merkley’s progress of late. San Jose’s director of scouting hasn’t been shy about discussing the prospect’s defensive improvements. He’s not the only evaluator who feels this way.
Brock Otten from OHL Prospects provided us with an update earlier in the year. Merkley, Otten writes, exhibited an offensive game that was “more dialed in and focused, as his decision making noticeably improved, but his commitment level and engagement in the defensive end was significantly better. Additionally, we saw very, very few incidents where Merkley lost his cool, playing a more composed game and communicating better with teammates and the coaching staff.”
Importantly, Merkley himself has long been aware of his own flaws, not something that’s a given for a teenager. Since his draft year, he’s put on muscle weight and continues to receive mostly rave reviews about his progression. With the exception of Brown’s skepticism, every update that sees the light of day supports the idea of Merkley reaching his elite NHLer projection.
Off-the-charts offense, improved defense, and self-awareness elevate Merkley into “blue chip” prospect territory. That he’s one good training camp away from playing NHL games makes him far and away the Sharks’ most promising prospect. Yes, even above the head-turning 2020 draft class that just emerged under San Jose team control.
Barring a surprise off-season move by Doug Wilson, just two days away from the beginning of training camp, the San Jose Sharks will go into training camp with both the sixth and seventh defenseman spots up for grabs. It just so happens that they also (ideally) need another right-handed blueliner. Everything is setting up perfectly for the playmaking wizard to step into an NHL role for most of the 2020-21 season.
There’s a good chance Merkley will line up opposite Mario Ferraro. Ferraro wasn’t anything special last season at even strength, but he should improve as a 22-year-old. With a solid, relatively-experienced partner in a sheltered role, Merkley should thrive in the NHL minutes he earns. Working in Merkley’s favor is a Sharks’ coaching staff with experience molding young AHL players and with a bent toward getting defenders involved in the offensive zone. It’s a beautiful situation for the up-and-coming player.
Travis Sanheim’s — whose junior scoring rates compare favorably to Merkley’s — rookie season deployment and performance may be instructive. In 2017-18, he played third-pair minutes with the bottom of the Flyers’ lineup against opponents’ depth skaters. The Flyers mostly sent him over the boards for offensive-zone faceoffs, and they played him less as the score got close and after the team took an early lead. In that role, he had the impact of an average defenseman at driving 5-on-5 play. He did, however, score at the rate of a first-pair blueliner. The following season, Sanheim exploded into a top-four role, where he continued his first-pair scoring while improving his 5-on-5 play driving with better teammates.
We should expect a similar but perhaps slightly slower career path, especially as long as Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns roam the right side of the Sharks’ blueline. Despite this, and despite his detractors (who have legitimate concerns), Merkley is more likely destined for stardom than he is the press box. It might take a few seasons for him to arrive at his peak, but he’s a special talent who is coming of age in a stellar, low-risk situation. Buy your custom Merkley jerseys now, because when the official threads hit the team store, they’ll sell out in a hurry.
If you’re new to this series, you can check out the introductory explainer article here — this will have all the definitions you need to know.
Part 2 looked at prospects — Jeremy Roy, Jeffrey Viel, and Jasper Weatherby — whose time is already up. And indeed, that’s the case for Roy, at least in the San Jose organization. Roy’s entry-level contract expired two months ago, and the Sharks declined to offer him a new contract, making the 2015 second-round pick a UFA.
Part 3 examined players — Jonathan Dahlen, Thomas Gregoire, Jayden Halbgewachs, Nikolai Knyzhov, Maxim Letunov, Scott Reedy, and Danil Yurtaykin — who likely have just one more year left to prove themselves before falling completely off the NHL radar. Halbgewachs was recently signed to a two-year contract, while Letunov got one year.
Part 4 analyzed prospects — Zachary Gallant, Vladislav Kotkov, Jake McGrew, and Kyle Topping — who still have time left but are otherwise unlikely to become NHLers.
Part 5 focused on some of the more intriguing but harder-to-project youngsters in the San Jose Sharks system: Zachary Emond, Joseph Garreffa, Santeri Hatakka, Krystof Hrabik, Timur Ibragimov, Zach Sawchenko, and Yegor Spiridonov.
Part 6 riffed on Lean Bergmann, Dillon Hamaliuk, and Alexei Melnichuk — players who should have NHL futures but don’t boast the highest ceilings.
Part 7 discussed “boom or bust” San Jose Sharks prospects Joachim Blichfeld, Ivan Chekhovich, Artemi Kniazev, and Josef Korenar.
Part 8 offered some more NHL-ready prospects like Sasha Chmelevski, John Leonard, Brinson Pasichnuk, and Alex True.
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