Nick certainly has grown. I don't think anybody anticipated for him to have, specifically, the first half he had. Confidence is a big thing. He's always been a confident kid but he's really believing that he can be a difference-maker on a consistent basis. - Rockets coach Dan Lambert
Nicholas Merkley is over a month away from hearing his name called at the 2015 NHL Draft. But he's already seen what it will take to be a National Hockey League player.
Spending his summers training alongside Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers and Mike Green of the Washington Capitals, the 17-year-old has a good understanding about what it's going to take for him to get to the next level.
"It's pretty cool seeing them in the gym every day," Merkley said. "Obviously you're star-struck but you're trying to focus on your workout and things like that. It's good to see how hard they work on the gym and on the ice.
"I got to skate with them a few times in the summer. It's pretty cool seeing how hard they work, even in practice. The best players have to get better every day and they're always working hard. It's good seeing that kind of stuff."
Merkley said he hasn't allowed himself to get too wide-eyed with some of the NHL elite in his presence. Instead, he's eyeing up their spots.
"If I go in the draft this year I might be competing against these guys in [training] camp," Merkley said. "You want to set yourself up good. Comparing yourself is kind of a stretch but I'll be competing for spots with NHLers pretty soon so you have to start preparing yourself for that."
With the growth he's shown as a key cog with one of the top teams in the Canadian Hockey League, Merkley could be well on his way.
He leads the Kelowna Rockets and is fifth in the Western Hockey League with 79 points in 60 games, and ranks second with 62 assists. He's No. 13 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings of the top North American skaters for the 2015 draft.
The growth in Merkley's game has been evident to Rockets coach Dan Lambert.
"Nick certainly has grown," said Lambert, in his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant under Ryan Huska for five years. "I don't think anybody anticipated for him to have, specifically, the first half he had. Confidence is a big thing. He's always been a confident kid but he's really believing that he can be a difference-maker on a consistent basis."
Teammate Rourke Chartier, who leads the WHL with 46 goals, said he's seen first-hand the growth and the confidence in Merkley's game.
"I think he's just worked hard," Chartier, a San Jose Sharks prospect, said. "Every day he's one of the hardest workers on our team. He's really determined. He's a really skilled, high-end player. He's always looking to pass first. I always try to get open for him and that's why we play so well together. He's got an ability to hold onto the puck and find players and I just try to get open for him."
While Merkley has been setting up Chartier on the ice, the roles have been reversed off the ice, as Merkley has tried to absorb as much as he can from his older teammate.
"My experience was a little different," Chartier, a 2014 fifth-round (No. 149) pick, said. "I was a late-round draft pick and I didn't go to any of the showcase things, whether it was the combine or the [CHL/NHL Top] Prospects Game. I'm not sure I'm a good person to ask but I try to give him advice whenever he asks. I'm just telling him to enjoy it and have fun of it because, I mean, at the end of the day the draft is a small snippet of your draft year.
"If you're not enjoying it and caught up in that you're not going to be playing to the best of your abilities."
It's advice Merkley has heeded.
"He didn't get to do as much as I have," Merkley said. "He was an early fifth-rounder and he put his nose to the grindstone and got his name out there this year. I think hopefully I can give myself a better opportunity. I still have to work hard again next year but hopefully that will set me up next year. There's more than one route. He found a way to make it work and it's good to see that. You can always get back in the game."
Merkley said if it does go Chartier's route and he isn't picked in the first round, it won't bother him.
"I think it’d be a huge honor to be a first-round pick," Merkley said. "If that doesn't happen I'm just going to keep working hard and try to make the best out of each opportunity.
"I think being a first-rounder gives you more opportunity, but either way you have to work as hard as you can to make the most out of any situation."
Author: Aaron Vickers | NHL.com Correspondent