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Nick Merkley on “Mental Battle” of Going Up & Down Between NHL/AHL

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Credit: San Jose Barracuda

WELCOME GUEST WRITER KAT PITRE! KAT CURRENTLY COVERS THE SAN JOSE SHARKS AT FEAR THE FIN AND HOSTS THE “THIS IS HOCKEY CULTURE” PODCAST. 

Nick Merkley knows how to work hard.

Whether it’s on or off the ice, in the weight room, or behind the net, his work ethic is the first thing you’ll notice about the 24-year-old forward. Only the best of the best are guaranteed a spot in the NHL, and Nick Merkley has always known that’s where he belongs.

“When the teacher asks you, what do you want to be when you’re older, I always wrote down, ‘I want to be an NHL player.’ Right from the start, that was my goal,” Merkley said.

As a child, envisioning donning an NHL jersey and hitting the ice in the best hockey league in the world is the definition of dreaming big, but that didn’t stop Nick Merkley from pursuing his dream, even when he was cautioned to think of a Plan B: “If you have a backup plan, you’re not going full in on your main goal. I think you waste some energy, just thinking about that backup plan.”

Merkley didn’t need to waste his time worrying about a backup plan, as he was drafted in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in the first round, at 30th overall to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s obvious as to why – he’s flexible and adaptable, capable of playing in either the center or right wing position, and he has a ‘hockey IQ’ that’s immediately present in how he manages the game on the forecheck and backcheck.

As a classic playmaker, Merkley’s best known for his attention to detail, capitalizing on turnovers, puck management, and anticipating developing plays. Because of this, Merkley made his NHL debut in the 2017-18 season, although he played just one game for the Coyotes, then spending the rest of the season with their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners.

From there, Merkley would spend the next few seasons fluctuating between the NHL and AHL within the Coyotes organization, before being included in the blockbuster trade with the New Jersey Devils that sent Taylor Hall (and Blake Speers) to the Arizona Coyotes in 2019.

Once with New Jersey, Merkley played four games in the NHL for the Devils, returning again to the AHL to play out the rest of the 2019-20 season for the Binghamton Devils.

Merkley’s journey to the NHL hit a snag when the 2020-21 season was paused amidst the brewing COVID-19 pandemic. Merkley, along with most players, spent the majority of the shutdown working out and doing what he could to stay conditioned with limited ice-time available. But, nothing primes a player for the grueling NHL (or AHL) season like actual time spent in a rink.

When he was offered the opportunity to be loaned from the Devils to Porin Assat of the Finnish Liiga, Merkley took it. He had never played in Europe before, didn’t speak a lick of Finnish, but he knew it would be a good experience that would ultimately benefit his career and development.

The Calgary-native was the only North American on the team, which led to some interesting (and funny) anecdotes, like how he and the other non-Finnish speaking players would know what was going on.

“Coach pretty much didn’t know any English. [And], we had like, six Swedish guys too. So when he’s explaining the drills or talking about anything, there’s like five players talking to each person that doesn’t know what he’s saying. So it’s like, he’s talking and then there are five guys talking at the same time,” Merkley laughed, as he recalled the locker room atmosphere in Porin.

You might be wondering if he picked up any Finnish while he was with Assat.

“I definitely don’t speak any Finnish. And apparently, it’s one of the hardest languages to learn!’ Merkley said.

(Just by looking at some of the Finnish last names on the backs of jerseys, I believe it).

Merkley spent 19 games in the Liiga, which culminated with four goals and nine assists, for a total of 13 points. It was a nice start to the rest of the year, which saw Merkley in the NHL for his longest stretch yet of 27 games.

Ahead of the 2021-22 season, the San Jose Sharks traded pending RFA Christian Jaros to the Devils in exchange for pending RFA Merkley.

Like any player traded to a new team, Merkley had expectations of what the Sharks’ organization would be like.

“I was excited to come here,” Merkley said. “I knew they had a really good team up top, and I obviously wanted a good chance at camp. I played most of the last year with New Jersey and in the NHL, so I was hoping to get a chance up top here.”

Despite a strong training camp, Merkley didn’t make the opening night roster for the Sharks, instead beginning the season with the San Jose Barracuda. Since then, Merkley’s played nine games for the Sharks, for a total of one goal and two assists.

With the re-introduction of the taxi squad and the close proximity of the Barracuda and the Sharks, that’s allowed for players to more easily move between the two leagues.

But it’s not easy constantly moving up and down between the AHL and NHL, physically or mentally, and there are stark differences between the two leagues. Regardless of whether one might think that the AHL is a standalone league where the wins are the most important thing, or that the affiliate’s purpose is just to develop players for the NHL, there’s no question that when you’re dreaming of the big leagues, getting sent down can sting.

“It can definitely be a mental battle at times. When you think you’re doing well, and then you get sent down, and you’re kind of just wondering why – it’s a lot of mental rather than just the physical on the ice because you want to do well, and you want to be up there as much as you can,” said Merkley.

As for the physical side of the game, the NHL is definitely at a different pace.

“All the players around you are better. And they’re in the right spots at the right time. I think it’s easier that way, where you can just read off guys better and guys are checking the right way and doing all the little things. It almost helps your game out as well.”

Plus, there’s the difference in travel; once you fly on a private jet in the NHL, it’s tough to go back to Southwest Airlines (the San Jose Barracuda’s airline of choice). Merkley laughs, “We’ve got some guys that will fake sleep, so you don’t get someone sitting next to him and stuff like that.”

There’s another big difference between the AHL and NHL – competition. For the NHL, it’s a much more unified front, but it can be difficult to shake the internal sense of competition in AHL locker rooms when you have an entire roster competing for only a few roster spots up above.

“There is internal competition and you want to be the next guy called up and all that, you’re definitely trying to make that job. So there is competition between each guy, but you’ve got to put that aside,” Merkley shared. “Everyone plays better when they do try and put that aside and just play for the team and try to win.”

Winning isn’t something the San Jose Barracuda have been doing much of this season, but Nick Merkley doesn’t let that stop him from knowing that he’s got what it takes to make it to the NHL level. Being a professional hockey player is hard enough, but at the AHL level, every game is like a job interview for an NHL gig.

But Merkley has a healthy sense of perspective on managing that pressure.

“It’s mostly just trying to stay in the same mindset, trying to enjoy playing the game and trying to do as you did as a kid and have fun,” he said. “That’s when you play your best hockey – when you’re enjoying it. So I think that’s the biggest thing is just trying to go back to square one and enjoy each day at the rink, and then other things will happen as they come.”

Barracuda Action

The San Jose Barracuda are sitting at the bottom of the AHL standings, mired in a five-game losing streak. The recent additions of Jasper Weatherby, Adam Raska, and Ryan Merkley from the San Jose Sharks will hopefully revitalize the Barracuda after the All-Star break, along with Nick Merkley being placed back at his more regular wing position.

On Jan. 31, the Barracuda met the Ontario Reign in a frustrating 8-5 loss. Jayden Halbgewachs scored two of the five goals, with John Leonard, Jake McGrew and Patrick Holway picking up the other three.

The losing bug stuck around for the beginning of February, as their past two games have also ended in losses. Feb. 2, the first of a back-to-back versus the Henderson Silver Knights ended in a 5-3 loss. The three goal-scorers were Sasha Chmelevski, Adam Raska, and Halbgewachs. Feb. 3, the last game prior to the All-Star break, was a 6-3 loss, with Leonard, McGrew, and Evan Weinger the goal-scorers for the Barracuda.

The Barracuda entered the break with a 14-24-1 record. They play next on Feb. 11 in San Diego.

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