Ryan Merkley’s offense has been perhaps as much of a problem as his defense.
Frankly, San Jose Sharks GM Mike Grier is going to have some trouble getting much back for the 2018 first-round pick, even if Merkley wants out.
On Tuesday, Frank Seravalli of The Daily Faceoff revealed that the 22-year-old defenseman, who’s spent the entire season with the San Jose Barracuda, had asked for a trade.
Merkley is thought of as all-offense and no-defense. But the truth is, the offense hasn’t been all that either.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s go back to last year. Admittedly, Merkley was playing better hockey. Take this game against the Boston Bruins last year, which Sheng wrote about:
However, even in a relatively-triumphant effort like that, Sheng clipped some examples of Merkley’s (6) shaky offensive decision-making that night, which has continued to be questionable this year.
Bradley's back on the board. pic.twitter.com/z5Sv0lJBcZ
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 27, 2022
Clips like this will look all too familiar by the time this article is done.
But before we get to Merkley’s offense this year, we have to touch on his defense, which is the 5-foot-11 blueliner’s most commonly-cited weakness.
And yes, the defense is bad. Full stop. It’s bad. It was bad last year, it’s worse this season. This isn’t even at the NHL, this is at the AHL.
I’ll share these two clips to highlight that from Dec. 31 versus the Coachella Valley Firebirds, in what might be Merkley’s last game with the San Jose Sharks organization if a quick trade occurs.
Merkley (6) is almost completely straight up in the defensive zone, stick not on the ice, gets completely tunnel visioned into the puck carrier Tye Kartye (12), and cannot recover to even get a stick in the lane on a simple shot from the cross-ice option Ryker Evans (41).
Poor positioning, effort, and a lack of awareness in one play, which are all emblematic of Merkley’s defensive game, especially on odd-man rush scenarios.
Merkley at the bottom of the screen here, and this one isn’t all his fault as his defense partner Will Riedell (90) overextends, but a complete lack of urgency is apparent in his backcheck that honestly is hard to come by at the minor league level.
Anyways these clips are not the most egregious ones, nor are they exhaustive by any means, they’re just to give you an idea of the type of effort that Merkley too often gives defensively.
And this isn’t even the game that got Merkley benched. It happened against the Bakersfield Condors on Dec. 27, after this play.
But what do I mean when I say that defense isn’t the biggest issue with Merkley?
Well, coaches will ignore a level of poor defense for explosive offense. It’s not a secret that the San Jose Sharks’ own Erik Karlsson isn’t exactly a shut-down defender at the NHL level. But he makes up for it in spades with dynamic, near game-breaking offensive plays on a nightly basis.
However, Merkley never took the step from game-breaking junior hockey player to game-breaking professional hockey player offensively. As an NHL executive told Sheng recently, in regards to Merkley, “Offense isn’t [consistently] special and he doesn’t defend well at all.”
It’s not even about the game-breaking plays either. It’s about what Merkley is doing offensively between the great plays. If he was playing mistake-free offensive hockey between the occasional highlight-reel flash, we’d have no issue.
But Merkley’s transition from juniors superstar to struggling pro has highlighted some technical offensive flaws which we’ll touch on here, namely an extremely weak shot, and a lack of acceleration for the type of game he plays. And, as I alluded to, there’s this massive, gaping, wide-open hole in Merkley’s game right now above his shot and skating: His decision-making with the puck.
It’s readily apparent that Merkley has a monumental issue with deciding what to do with the puck in all three zones right now at the AHL level.
Merkley has at least three passing opportunities presented to him throughout this clip, and yet he skates directly up ice, and into his forechecker Austin Poganski (14). He’s doing very little to manipulate his pass under or through Poganski, or to gain enough speed to get by him, that he just launches a pass as quick as he can to his left.
Merkley skates himself out of ice repeatedly when trying to initiate breakouts, and then has no option left but to force a bad pass. Rinse and repeat.
Same above, he stops skating, then forces a bad pass over the middle, almost intercepted by Alexander True (11), instead of continuing to transport the puck up ice.
At a certain point in this clip Merkley has three Barracuda teammates around him (four if you count the goaltender), and he still manages to throw the puck into his forechecker True’s skates. The only forechecker.
Merkley’s processing speed for evolving plays is extremely slow, and it’s that decision-making that breaks down entirely under forechecking pressure.
This one has so many things to highlight. As mentioned briefly above, Merkley lacks an escape gear to his skating. He has real trouble beating defenders one-on-one at speed, and then making a decision after.
To use the example of Karlsson again, the Norris Trophy candidate often blows by the forechecking layer of a defense on a shift-by-shift basis, and then re-evaluates where he is, where his teammates are, and makes his next move.
Merkley has had problems with the first stage of that equation. Instead, he’s stuck as above, circling, passing up simpler passes, and forcing an ill-advised cross-ice pass over two sticks.
Here’s a final example of Merkley’s questionable offensive decision-making from New Year’s Eve.
I included it because it showcases some poor defensive positioning in the very beginning of this clip as well. After the initial shot, then with three forecheckers coming down on him, the puck in the corner, Merkley throws it into the center of the ice to Scott Reedy (54). Extremely ill-advised given the forecheckers and their sticks in the lane, though it does sneak through. But Reedy hands back to Merkley.
Merkley does manage to beat forechecker Kole Lind (16) here, and makes the right decision to get it over to partner Darren Brady (92), but his execution is lacking, Brady can’t handle, and Lind pots a goal.
Again, these offensive problems aren’t confined to this season.
Sheng wrote this at the end of last year, when fans were howling after Merkley got benched by Bob Boughner during an Apr. 5 tilt against the Edmonton Oilers.
The clips from that game might look like déjà vu:
Hopefully, a change of scenery can kickstart Merkley on both sides of the puck. He was better last year, and maybe he’ll be able to get back to that spot in his development somewhere new. But even last year, along with his defensive question marks, he had a lot of offensive issues too.
Can Merkley turn over a new leaf in a new NHL city? It’s looks like we should find out soon enough.
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