Ryan Merkley is a 5’11 right-shooting defenceman from Mississauga, and his favourite team growing up was the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was the first overall pick in the 2016 OHL draft, and immediately led the Guelph Storm in scoring as a 16 year old defenceman. He carries the scoring talent of a top 10 pick, but did not earn a spot in the top 16 of Bob McKenzie’s latest draft rankings.

Merkley is a polarizing figure across draft rankings. He placed ninth on my list back in March, but many outlets have taken him out of their top 20. There are multiple reasons for this, as there are significant concerns around his defensive game, as well as rumours surrounding his off ice actions. On talent alone, he carries a good chance of being the top player available to the Leafs at 25th overall.

Corey Pronman of the Athletic describes Merkley’s game well. Merkley carries the potential to be an elite powerplay quarterback similar to Shayne Gostisbehere, and while he will may never develop into a trusted shutdown option, it is easy to envision him turning into a 50+ point scorer. He can run a top powerplay unit almost single-handedly, as he consistently eludes opposing defenders, and creates both passing lanes and high-danger scoring chances.

He often gets criticized for his defensive play and plus-minus, as he was a -29 in Guelph this year, and -41 in his rookie season. I will go into his defensive shortcomings in greater detail, but these concerns are often over-exaggerated, and evaluators should know better than to place a lot of weight on a player’s plus-minus. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a -53 over the past two years, and no one would ever call him a bad defenceman. Merkley is a powerplay specialist playing on a bad team, and his performance at the Hlinka should leave little doubt that he’s a net positive to the Storm when he’s on the ice. If you use plus-minus to evaluate players, stop using it.

OHL U18 D Points Per Game Leaders Since the Doughty Draft

PlayerSeason PPG
Ryan Ellis08-091.56
Ryan Murphy10-111.25
Drew Doughty06-071.1
Mitchell Vande Sompel*14-151.09
Ryan Merkley17-181.06
Zach Bogosian07-081.02
Ryan Ellis07-081
Michael Del Zotto07-080.98
Tony DeAngelo12-130.94
Calvin de Hann08-090.93
Aaron Ekblad13-140.91
Michael Del Zotto06-070.89
Ryan Merkley16-170.89
Alex Pietrangelo07-080.88
Rasmus Sandin17-180.88
Alex Pietrangelo06-070.88
Cam Dineen15-160.87
Dougie Hamilton10-110.87
Mikhail Sergachev15-160.85
PK Subban06-070.82

A Glimpse of Merkley in Action

Merkley is a human highlight reel. He twists and turns his way around defenders, and regularly works his way into high-danger scoring areas. He is a high-end puck carrier and scorer:

Merkley fools the opposing defender by faking a shot, then weaves around him to drive the puck deep into the offensive zone. His creativity makes him a major threat in terms of zone entries:

He is a lethal puck mover in the transition game, as he impresses as both a passer and puck carrier. His quickness and puck carrying ability is on full display here:

Merkley regularly makes plays that other defencemen would never attempt, and he processes the game quickly. This clever backhand pass gives the puck to his teammate with plenty of space. The ability to create space for his teammates regularly leads to high-danger chances:

He’s certainly comfortable with the puck on his stick, and he can hold onto it for hours as he weaves around the offensive zone. His creativity makes him a pain to defend against, and placing too much focus on Merkley allows his teammates to get open.

Once again, Merkley showcases his ability as a puck carrier, and this nifty backhand pass provides his teammate with plenty of space. His forward now has all the time in the world to create a high-danger scoring chance:

Merkley walks the blueline, drives the puck deep into the offensive zone, then dishes off a cross-ice pass to Joe Veleno. He uses his skill as a carrier to create passing lanes, and seems to have eyes on the back of his head:

Once again, Merkley weaves his way deep into the offensive zone to create a passing lane, then finds his teammate with a cross ice pass. Calen Addison makes no mistake finishing off this play:

Final Thoughts

Merkley is a high-end puck carrier, passer, and scoring threat. You can run a high-end powerplay through him, and he will single-handedly create high-danger chances. He was one of Canada’s best players at the Hlinka, and finished one point behind Veleno for the team lead. I’ve seen evaluators who believe he is a net negative on the ice due to his defensive game, but I am a firm believer that he’s been one of Canada’s top players every time I’ve see him play. Fifty-point defencemen do not exactly grow on trees, as only 19 NHL players reached that total this year, but Merkley carries the skillset to join this group one day.

Defensively, Merkley is undersized and needs to get stronger in order to win battles at the NHL level. Evaluators become frustrated with his tendency to quit on plays, as he appears to get frustrated quite often, and doesn’t always give it his all in the defensive end. He will take bad penalties out of frustration, and showcase plenty of frustration with his body language.

Ultimately, pre-draft interviews should be incredibly important for Merkley, as teams will try to evaluate whether or not he can fit in their culture. If they are satisfied, Merkley could become one of the steals of the draft, even if he never develops into a top pairing shutdown defender. He’s a clear top 15 pick on talent alone, and he will certainly be an interesting player to watch at this year’s draft.