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NHL Draft

Merkley has potential to become 'special' player

Size no deterrent for defenseman prospect with eyes on being chosen No. 1 in 2018 NHL Draft

by Aaron Vickers / Correspondent

Size on defense hasn't been an issue of late for NHL teams, a fact not lost on defenseman prospect Ryan Merkley.

In the 2017 NHL Draft, the Dallas Stars selected defenseman Miro Heiskanen (6-foot, 170 pounds) with the No. 3 pick, and the Colorado Avalanche chose defenseman Cale Makar (5-11, 180) at No. 4.

Merkley (5-11, 170) was one of nine defensemen to earn an "A" rating in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list, and is a projected No. 1 pick, for the 2018 draft in Dallas on June 22-23.

"I just want to go as high as possible," said Merkley, 17, who has nine points (two goals, seven assists) in six games with Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League this season. "I want to challenge for No. 1. That's what I want to do. I'm a competitor. I want to be the best. I want to prove myself.

"It's nice to see those guys go as high as they went. It gives you hope."

He also has the skill to overcome his stature.

"Merkley has the potential to be classed as a 'special' player where size is not relevant," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. "He possesses elite skating and quickness that allow him to make a difference on the play and he plays a very dynamic offensive game which, when combined with good decisions and competitive instincts, often translate well in draft consideration."

Merkley also knows a thing or two about the draft process. He was, after all, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection.

This go-round has a familiar feel.

"It's kind of the same thing," he said. "I'm going against the best in my region there. It's the same thing, just a bigger stage. One step at a time, right? One challenge at a time.

"Just one game at a time."

However, Merkley's status as an elite member of the 2018 draft class is a result of many games. In 2015-16, the season prior to being chosen No. 1 by Guelph, he had 44 points (seven goals, 37 assists) in 33 games with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens Midget AAA program in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and was named the GTHL Minor Midget player of the year.

In 2016-17, his first in Guelph, the Oakville, Ontario, native had 43 assists and 55 points in 62 games, each best among OHL rookies. He was named to the league's first all-rookie team and earned the Emms Family Award as OHL rookie of the year.

"Ryan has been an elite player for many, many years up through the minor hockey ranks," Guelph coach George Burnett said. "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."

Teammates see it, too.

"Like you see in Makar and Heiskanen…they both control the play from the back and have quick feet…that's what you see with [Merkley] as well, and how he sees the ice and controls the play from behind his own net all the way to the far blue line," Guelph forward Isaac Ratcliffe said. "Those are kind of the next guys that are coming and stepping in and taking over at a high level. That's what we're going to see in the future."

Ratcliffe is one of the players helping prepare to get Merkley there. Merkley watched Ratcliffe and Guelph forward Nate Schnarr go through the draft process a year ago. The Philadelphia Flyers selected Ratcliffe in the second round (No. 35); the Arizona Coyotes chose Schnarr in the third round (No. 75).

They're encouraging him to enjoy the challenge and the experience.

"I went through it with them," Merkley said. "They embraced it. It's a long year. It goes by fast though. It's a lot on them. After practices, after games … media would always call them out. It was cool to watch that and get ready for my year coming up.

"I get to talk to them and go through their experiences and what they went through, and how they dealt with it, the pressures and how they went through their draft year. I was able to see them handle it and it'll help me."

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