The Ryan Merkley conundrum

When the Leafs were terrible, I’d usually spend most of the second half of the season looking at draft content, seeing who might go in the top ten, who could be a steal later, and so on. Since they got good, admittedly my interest in the draft has been pushed back to a quick catch-up in the last couple weeks before it actually goes down.

But one name that’s been floating across my radar for a few months is Ryan Merkley, who we profiled here just a couple weeks ago. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen “I hope Merkley is there at 25th” scroll through my Twitter timeline from Leafs supporters. Another thing I picked up quickly is that apparently this kid has had a tough time climbing the draft rankings due to some “character issues”.

From what I can gather, this has the makings to be a draft day story-line that’ll be followed pretty closely, especially in our neck of the woods, because there’s a high chance Merkley is on the board when Kyle Dubas steps to the podium to make his first selection Friday night.

So what’s the story on this guy? What exactly are these character issues that scare away scouts? In Bob McKenzie’s most recent “BobCast“, he gave a nice rundown of what’s been going on:

There’s been some question about his attitude both on and off the ice. Now when I say “off the ice”, we need to make something clear: When people start talking about off-ice issues, we immediately start thinking of lifestyle concerns. That’s not what we’re talking about here. The concerns that NHL scouts have with Ryan Merkley is not what he does away from the rink, it’s what he does in the rink: On the ice and off the ice – as in, on the bench, in the dressing room, those types of things… (What we’re talking about here is) we have an extremely immature hockey player with a massive amount of offensive ability. He’s been described as petulant, and at times I think he’s made his own life in hockey difficult…he’s had poor self-awareness, and a real lack of accountability.

By this account it seems Merkley isn’t a poor character guy or particularly abrasive person in a broad sense, and McKenzie points out his billet family and folks in Guelph have all kinds of good things to say about him. He comes across as a standard interview as far as hockey players go.

But I think most people know, or knew, someone on their sports team growing up who probably fits the description above. Someone who flips out when things go awry, blames everyone else, takes misconducts. It can be a bad scene. Bob also goes on to say that the scouts (who all work for NHL clubs) that he uses to create his pre-draft aggregated rankings have Merkley rated anywhere from the late teens to the third round. He’s all over the place.

But here’s what we also know about Merkley: He had 67 points in 63 games this past year, good for the second-best offensive season in the OHL for draft eligible defencemen behind just Evan Bouchard (who’s set to go around 7th overall on most draft boards), and he’s a late, late birthday, not turning 18 until this August. Also, he does shit like this:

Further to the eye test, the annual prospect rankings magazine Future Considerations also had this praise for him:

A top-flight rearguard and dynamic skater…His speed can make defenders look like beer-leaguers and it allows him to create offense out of nothing…When he plays a more team-focused brand of hockey, his smarts and offensive skills are even more evident.

For a bit more Leafs perspective and as it relates to their opening pick, I asked noted good hockey man, MLN writer, and old-stock Albertan Jon Steitzer to give us his nuclear take:

If Ryan Merkley is available at 25, I suspect all my common sense will get thrown out the window and I’ll immediately demand that Kyle Dubas draft him, but right now I’m a bit more risk averse on him.

There are some very real character issues that are being brought up from people who generally don’t let character issues factor into their draft rankings. Merkley’s undisciplined actions certainly seem to support that there could be a selfish side to him.

There’s also the fact that Merkley is beyond a blackhole in his own zone and shows little interest in building that element of his game. Assuming that Mike Babcock is the Leafs coach for the foreseeable future, Merkley is probably not going to get a sniff of the Leafs roster without a major shift from what he’s currently doing.

If the Leafs do draft Merkley, it probably makes the most sense to do so to add a talent that is going to have tremendous trade value over the next couple of years. I have no desire to see Merkley play for the Leafs, but I think he has the potential to be a palateable Rask type trade.

As far as my own opinion goes, I really don’t have enough draft insight to say if the Leafs should or shouldn’t draft this kid, but he seems to be another classic example of a low floor, elite ceiling guy tumbling down the draft. Prospects with histories like this have flamed out in the past, but others have flourished. In previous years I might have said “definitely take him” but I don’t know enough about the players around that part of the draft to have too strong a stance. For every William Nylander, who was supposedly aloof as a young prospect but developed into an incredible pro player, there’s an Anthony DeAngelo or Kirill Kabanov, who really didn’t.

One thing I do know, however, is there’s a very real chance we get close to 25th overall on draft night and Merkley is still going to be on the board. When that happens, Toronto fans are going to wonder if it’s worth taking the gamble on him. And to some extent, what the team chooses to do at that point might give us a better hint of Dubas’s leanings toward high-risk talents. Until then I guess we’ll continue projecting.

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  • getrdone

    With the Leafs really putting an emphasis on character individuals over the past few years, they may indeed pass on someone because they would upset the atmosphere in the “room”.

  • magesticRAGE

    Man, I dunno. I think I’d still lean on picking the most talented player available , no matter what . Would he change his tune playing for a better team ? What if he changes under the tutelage of grown men when he turns pro? Kadri had some character flaws, even Karlsson was a non factor in his own zone early on. I think you gotta take him and chart a course for development .