? by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat
On Oct. 30, the San Jose Sharks placed seven players on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list and recalled five skaters from the San Jose Barracuda. Among the recallees was second-year defenseman Ryan Merkley.
That night, Merkley would skate in his first NHL game, logging just over 16 minutes of ice time and almost two minutes on the power play as the Sharks found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets, 2-1 in overtime.
After an up-and-down rookie season last year, Merkley spent 12 weeks this past summer living in Plymouth, Mich., with his godfather Jimmy McGroarty and McGroarty’s son Rutger, who is projected to be a first-round pick in 2022.
“I felt like it was awesome, my godfather has a lot of connections down there. I think he’s been down there for eight years now with his son playing,” said Merkley. “It was quiet, I didn’t know many people, so I was able to just focus on hockey, focus on my game. It was nice to just dial in. I was able to skate with the Fantilli brothers (Luca and Adam), Rutger, the Hughes brothers (Jack, Quinn, and Luke), Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck… there’s a lot of good players out there, Sasha (Chmelevski) too.”
Because Merkley didn’t know many people in Plymouth and he was just minutes away from the United States National Development Program facilities, he was able to focus strictly on hockey, without distraction. He spent hours on the ice and in the gym each day. He gained roughly six to eight pounds of muscle, increased his cardiovascular endurance so he could play heavy minutes, and worked on his shot.
The work has paid off in spades in the early going of the season. The recently turned 21-year-old has played roughly 25 minutes a night for head coach Roy Sommer, who hasn’t been shy about putting Merkley on the ice in all situations.
A year ago, if the Barracuda were in a tight game with under five minutes to go, Merkley was often left on the bench. The Sharks deployed 12 different defensemen last year, but Merkley was not one of them. Things have certainly changed this season.
So, although his first NHL action came earlier than maybe expected, Merkley’s play so far in 2021-22 indicated it was only going to be a matter of time before the slick defenseman earned an opportunity with the big club.
“He’s been really good. He’s been killing plays, moving pucks, jumping into the play, creating offense,” said Sommer, who’s in his 24th season as the bench boss for the Sharks’ top affiliate. “He’s been making really good decisions, hitting singles, he’s been good down low, he’s been killing plays and not allowing them to stay alive… He’s starting to show what he’s made of right now.”
It hasn’t just been Sommer and the Sharks’ brass that has noticed great growth in the Ontario native; Merkley’s defensive partner Jaycob Megna has also felt the direct effects of his evolution.
“The little stuff makes it easier for both of us; getting back a little quicker, taking an extra second to have the time to make the simple play, not always looking for the home run,” said Megna. “It’s made my life easier, and it’s made his life a lot easier. I think he’s starting to see that there is still a way to be creative and do the things he’s known for but still do the simple stuff and be successful that way.”
A year ago, the Sharks were forced to conduct training camp in Arizona and the Barracuda began the season on the road for nearly the first month. Living in a hotel, not being able to spend time with teammates or staff and eating takeout and order-in for nearly 60 days wasn’t the most conducive environment for a player who was just trying to adjust to the professional level. Merkley admitted there were times it wasn’t fun, and that he wasn’t in as good of shape as he would have liked.
Returning to a sense of normalcy has been a huge benefit for the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder.
“With the circumstances we had last year, we were isolated and separated in our hotels in Arizona, so it didn’t really feel like a team, but I feel like now, getting through that, and all the boys are together again, it’s been fun,” said Merkley. “Going through all that has made this year way easier and much more enjoyable, more relaxed.”
Megna, the team’s captain, has noticed Merkley’s personality coming out too.
“He’s funny, he brings a lot of energy to the room… He’s still a kid, but he definitely lightens the mood and makes things fun for guys, so it’s good to have him around.”
“I think it’s mandatory in a grueling sport like we play — it’s a long season, showing up every day putting in the work, our bodies are hurting — so I think it’s good to come in, joke around with the guys, get a few laughs,” said Merkley.
“Being a younger guy, we didn’t see the older guys much last year,” he continued. “So, we were kind of on our own, but it’s been awesome so far just being back in the room with all the guys.”
Like it often does for players in their second year, the game has slowed down for Merkley, but he’s also sped up. His decisions are more decisive, his mobility has been on full display and his defensive positioning and commitment to his end have been night and day from a season ago.
“He’s making the simple plays, he’s doing the stuff he has to do, so that he can go and do the stuff that he wants to do,” said Megna. “Just more of a commitment to playing the right way.”
“We grade our players after each game from a scale of one to five; he’s been a four or five in every game this season,” said Sommer. “He’s in great shape, and we’re playing him over 25 minutes a game this year… we couldn’t do that a season ago. The American League is tough, there are going to be moments when players struggle but he’s been excellent so far this season.”
Pairing Merkley with Megna from an early going was by design. Megna, the veteran stay-at-home defender, is the exact opposite of Merkley. But the two complement each other quite well, and Megna’s game has allowed for Merkley to come along at his own pace.
“Opposites do attract,” said Merkley. “He’s big, 6-foot-6, he handles guys in the corners, he’s got a great active stick. I can distribute pucks so it’s nice. We know what our strengths are, and we have that chemistry now going into year two, we’re more comfortable with each other.”
Twice during his junior career in the Ontario Hockey League, Merkley led the league in assists among defensemen, and he was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2017. His playmaking ability has never been in question and that is a big reason why many evaluators had him pegged as a top-15 draft prospect entering the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Various factors played into the prospect slipping in the first round, but the Sharks felt his tools were too good to pass up.
In year two, Merkley is beginning to turn into the player the organization hoped for when they selected him.