In what’s shaping up to be another lost season for the San Jose Sharks, Ryan Merkley has been a bright spot.
Granted, the offense-first defenseman’s numbers aren’t eye-popping — the rookie has just a goal and two assists in 19 games — but consider where he was last season.
In 31 AHL games, he had just a goal and 10 assists; this year, he has a goal and 16 assists in 25 games with the San Jose Barracuda.
Last season, the 2018 first-round pick was a prospect whose star was falling; this season, he’s regained at least some of his previous stock.
“His skill and vision is so evident even at this level,” Sharks captain Logan Couture offered after San Jose’s 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins.
In part because of defenseman Mario Ferraro’s early exit from the game and the deficit that the Sharks were facing, the skilled blueliner was given generous run in the final frame.
He made the most of it.
This is a perfect pass from Merkley (6): It’s tape to tape, hits Tomas Hertl (48) in stride, and is also perfectly timed, meaning it allows Hertl to split David Pastrnak (88) and Derek Forbort (28).
Couture continued: “It’s impressive what he does with the puck.”
This doesn’t look like much, but notice how Connor Clifton (75), stationed at the far blueline, reacts to Merkley’s fake dump-in: Clifton turns to retrieve a puck that’s never coming, opening the gap between himself and Jonah Gadjovich (42).
Merkley takes advantage, as planned, by hitting Gadjovich with another dime. The winger, instead of going in on the forecheck, has an easy zone entry and pounds a shot on Jeremy Swayman. It’s not a dangerous bid, but earns the goal-starved San Jose Sharks an offensive zone faceoff.
Merkley has shown a gift for creating time and space for his teammates.
“Not many players can have that poise and confidence at a young age,” Couture said, “with little experience in the league.”
This was the rookie’s pièce de résistance last night.
“You saw at the end his true hockey sense and his assets, being able to distribute that puck and make some plays under pressure,” Bob Boughner noted.
Merkley creates time and space for himself by luring in an overaggressive Jake DeBrusk (74) up top. Dusting DeBrusk forces the rest of the Bruins to collapse on Merkley, which discombobulates a usually stellar team defense.
In the ensuing scrum, Merkley digs the puck out. And once again, the rookie’s poise with the puck is stunning. He doesn’t shoot into the pack of Bruins in front of him, a likely block. He doesn’t force a pass at a not-ready Hertl.
Instead, Merkley pulls back from the chaos, avoids DeBrusk’s flailing stick, and waits for Hertl to get his stick cocked.
Only an unbelievable save from Swayman keeps the Bruins up.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 27, 2022
Last season, it wasn’t just Merkley’s lack of production that was concerning: His conditioning and defensive play were also worrisome.
He appears to have taken care of the former, but the latter is still a problem.
Bradley's back on the board. pic.twitter.com/z5Sv0lJBcZ
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 27, 2022
This was an ill-advised pinch from Merkley: He chased a puck that he probably was never going to win and let DeBrusk get behind him.
“It was a difficult pinch to make at that time,” Boughner acknowledged. “I guess I can call it a young mistake. He’s learning when to go, when not to go.”
And even offensively, the rookie has shown a penchant for doing too much.
So there’s a lot to iron out about Merkley’s game. But there’s also, unlike last year, real reason to be hopeful about his future in the NHL.
The big question with Merkley? Can he limit his weaknesses so his offensive gifts can shine?
“He’s coming along,” Boughner pointed out. “He’s starting to get a little bit of physicality to his game in the D zone. We’ve been asking to jump the check a little harder and a little quicker and those things are starting to come.”
It’s a delicate balance, and it will be fascinating to see if the talented Merkley can strike it in the years to come.
No less than Erik Karlsson, arguably the greatest offensive defenseman of his generation, spoke about that balance on Friday: “He’s a certain type of player, and the only thing I tell him, you gotta keep being that.
“It’s easy sometimes when you’re young and trying to stay in the lineup, you start doing things that people tell you to, even though that’s not what got you to the position that you’re in. For him, it’s just stay true to himself.
“Work on his game, obviously improve certain areas, but at the same time, keep playing the way that you are.”
We saw the true Ryan Merkley last night, and it was electrifying.
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