Welcome to the next wave of prospects we’ll be discussing here at TLN. Earlier this month we looked at the Leafs’ options at number four, but as management has pointed out a few times, they really want to hit a homerun on the 24th overall pick acquired from Nashville in order to ramp up this rebuild. Now we’ll take a look at who might be around, or just within reach and perhaps worth a draft day deal to move up and select. Starting things off: Nick Merkley of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
Merkley’s projected overall selection ranges a little bit. Consensus at MyNHLDraft has him as high as 14, while scouting services like CSS and ISS have him at 23rd and 19th respectively. Corey Pronman of ESPN ranked him 18th in his top one-hundred prospects list earlier this month (Insider Paywall).
As for his production, Merkley has enjoyed success with the Rockets in his two years there. As a rookie in the 2013-14 season he notched nearly a point-per-game as a 16-year-old with 75 points in 80 games, including playoffs. He then followed that up with 117 points over this past campaign in 89 appearances, again including the Rockets’ postseason run.
Merkley is a distributing center and his numbers reflect that, as he’s racked up assists at quite a rate, including 45 primary helpers this past year, tops in the WHL by a fair margin for draft-eligible players who punched in a full regular season (Jansen Harkins was second with 35). Matthew Barzal was comparable in terms of per-game rate in this regard (0.59 to Merkley’s 0.63), but he should be off the board in the top ten, not in the discussion for 24th overall.
Again, looking at draft-eligible players, Merkley ranked second in the league in points-per-game (1.25), just a shade below Barzal (1.30). He was fourth, however, among the same group in TeamPt% – percentage his points account for all of the team’s scoring – with 29.8%, behind Barzal, Harkins, and Jake DeBrusk (numbers via CHLStats.com).
Another thing to note about Merkley is he’s a fairly late birthday, only turning 18 just two days ago.
The Eye Test
As you’d expect from the numbers, Merkley’s strengths appear to be his vision and ability to create scoring opportunities for those around him.
Here’s a quick blurb from Pronman’s piece describing his level of skill:
…a high-end offensive weapon who can make a wide variety of plays to generate scoring chances, and is a dynamic puck handler with very soft hands and a high level of creativity…makes plays in tight spaces and at a very quick pace…very flashy player — arguably at times trying to be too fancy — but overall the tempo at which he plays makes him very dangerous.
Flashy? Too fancy? Sign me up.
The only real knock on Merkley is his size, as he registers at just shy of 5’11 right now. But I think we’re all smart enough these days to move past that as a reason to pass on a player, especially given his production as a draft-eligible and even in his draft-minus-one year.
If you want to run your own eye test on Merkley’s game, his Rockets are currently competing in the Memorial Cup, with games against Rimouski and Oshawa over the next two nights.
Does he make the Leafs’ shortlist?
There’s little doubt the Leafs will have Merkley’s name penciled in as an option at 24th, the question is whether he can fall far enough for them to have to make that sort of decision. A pass-first center with this sort of production presents as something the organization has had major difficulty acquiring, and if they opt to go with Marner over Strome with the top pick (they should), you’re hauling two major offensive forwards out of the first round with what could be complementing skill-sets.
It’s tough to say whether Merkley is worth trading up for since we don’t know the prices to make that move, or how the Leafs currently feel the round will shake out. Dubas did mention him by name a few weeks ago when discussing scouting junior players still in action, so he’s at least on their radar.