Drafting Ryan Merkley Is A Shot Worth Taking For The Toronto Maple Leafs

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WINDSOR, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Defenceman Ryan Merkley #6 of the Guelph Storm moves the puck against Cole Purboo #26 of the Windsor Spitfires on September 24, 2017 at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

Do not be surprised if the Toronto Maple Leafs decide to draft RHD Ryan Merkley from the OHL’s Guelph Storm. Merkley is a “project”, but if he pans out, the work is all worthwhile.

Drafting Ryan Merkley Could Be Worth It

“He’s one of the most talented players in the draft,” one NHL scout told Sportsnet. “His natural ability to skate and make plays with the puck is at another level. But there are some teams that wouldn’t take him no matter what. He’s the biggest wildcard of the draft.”

There’s no doubt that Merkley has talent. He had 55 points in 63 games as a 16-year-old rookie, 67 points in 63 games this season. He could be the second best defenceman to come out of this year’s draft class. It is not an exaggeration either. 

Merkley’s Upside

Merkley is almost a point-per-game player in his CHL career. In 138 games, Merkley recorded 131 points. Not to mention, Merkley’s six points in six playoff games. Not too shabby for a 17-year-old player.

Seeing him play live is a treat. He is a masterful skater. Merkley uses his feet to enhance his game and open up the ice for him and his teammates. Merkley can pass the puck around nicely. That is one of his hidden talents. Furthermore, Merkley has a good shot that is very accurate.

Merkley’s Downfalls

One downfall is that he has shown an inability to defend. Merkley has a bad habit of pinching at the wrong time, leaving his fellow teammates bitting the dust. This is an issue, of course, that can solve itself as Merkley develops as a player.

Another issue with Merkley is his size. Currently, Merkley comes in at 5’11”, 170 lbs. Obviously, he’ll have to put on some muscle before he makes it to the NHL. It is essential that he does because otherwise, he’ll be pushed around like a rag doll. It currently seems like opposing players have no issue with checking Merkley. He’ll have to learn to become more evasive. His high-end skating skills will help with that.

Merkley’s Maturity Issues

The Hockey News has coined Ryan Merkley as the “the most controversial player in the draft“. That is not without good reason.

Merkley’s immaturity and, at times, unwillingness to learn can be concerning. Last season, he publicly argued with his junior coach at the bench and was sent to the dressing room. This season, Merkley was suspended three games for a dangerous, spectacularly undisciplined, two-handed slash at an opponent who had whacked him on the hand.

Although this is worrisome, Merkley does not seem to have a naive attitude. He knows his shortcomings and is working on trying to improve them. At least, that is what he is saying. He is only a teenager and this attitude of his could, and probably is, nothing more than just a phase. As Merkley grows, he’ll more than likely mature. He’ll need ‘tough love’ and that’s something Mike Babcock is good at.

What People Say About Merkley (via Sportsnet)

NHL Central Scouting’s Troy Dumville told NHL.com: “At the end of the day, kids mature and I think teams realize that what you’re getting at 17 is not what you’re going to have at 22. And if you look at what his potential might be as a 22-year-old, it’s pretty attractive. If he matures, and his game comes to where you’re hoping it does, you have yourself a pretty good hockey player and probably one drafted in a position lower than what his talent level really is.”

Guelph coach George Burnett: “He has the ability to play the game at a very high pace. His vision and skill are certainly something that sets him apart from many players. I think when you look at him, his numbers and his skill speak for themselves. Obviously, the upside is tremendous.”

Merkley’s mom Joanne: “He was obsessed with hockey since he could hold a stick and walk. He always wanted to be challenged. He always wanted to be the guy who could kind of make a difference and help the team be better. That’s always the way he’s been, right from when he was little.”

Merkley’s Rankings

NHL Central Scouting ranks Merkley as the 45th-best North American skater, which was a big fall from his mid-term ranking of 21.

Elsewhere, Merkley is ranked 70th by HOCKEYPROSPECTS.com, 25th by FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS, 47th by ISS Hockey, 31th by MCKEEN’S HOCKEY, and 32nd by TSN’s Bob McKenzie and 21st by LWOH’s Ben Kerr.

Where Do The Leafs Fall In All Of This?

Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said he’s looking for the best player on the board. Most are saying Merkley could go in the second or third round to a team that’s willing to take a risk on him. That is reflected by his mixed draft rankings. Is it worth taking him with the 25th pick when there’s a safer play?

That is the decision Dubas and co. must make. Merkley isn’t entirely what the Leafs want. Toronto needs a stay-at-home right-handed defenceman that could pair with Morgan Rielly.

Let’s say, it’s the 25th pick. Toronto wants Merkley but does not want to go off the board to get him. Would Toronto consider trading down and drafting Merkley? The best teams always stockpile their prospects and this is how one would do so. There are teams that would be willing to acquire Toronto’s pick. The more the merrier.

And after all, if 2020 comes around and Merkley is making contributions to the Leafs, wouldn’t all this be worth it?

Merkley is a daring pick, but daring is asking something outrageous despite your chances of failure and rejection. Daring is going out on a limb by believing in something that no one else understands, and if all fails, daring is trying again.

Toronto must be willing to go where eagles dare.

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Christian Holmes is a senior writer for Grandstand Central, as well as an editor for Last Word On Hockey. Holmesy, as he is known by his peers, works to facilitate intimate one-on-one conversations with some of the most interesting personalities in sports. Not to mention, Holmes does also have a keen eye for writing powerful and thought-provoking stories as proven by his story about his lifelong love affair with hockey being published in TSN Hockey Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie’s and sports writer Jim Lang’s new book entitled "Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspirational Stories On and Off The Ice". If you’re looking for a good laugh or even to learn a thing or two about life, you can follow him on Twitter below.

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