SAN JOSE -- Ryan Merkley took a big step forward in his development last season, and if the 18-year-old defenseman prospect takes another one during training camp, he could force the San Jose Sharks into making a difficult decision.
"I'd like to push for that third spot on the right side," Merkley said during Sharks development camp in June. "Playing behind [Erik] Karlsson and [Brent] Burns would be massive for my development."
San Jose wouldn't lack offensive creativity on the right side of its blue line with those mobile players handling the puck. It's the defensive side of the game where the No. 21 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft must show improvement.
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There has been positive growth in that area since Merkley's first two seasons with Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League, where he was a combined minus-70. But that improved to plus-4 last season, when he also had 71 points (14 goals, 57 assists) in 63 games with Guelph and Peterborough of the OHL. In addition, he played two regular-season games with San Jose of the American Hockey League and four more in the Calder Cup playoffs.
"It's just the commitment, not cheating and knowing the time and place in the game," said Merkley (5-foot-11, 170 pounds). "I want to create, make plays and put up points, but it's a team game too. When we're up 2-1, I've got to dial it in."
In addition to adjusting to the speed of the pro game, Merkley was reminded in development camp of the importance of picking his spots to create and remembering his first job is to be in position to defend.
Video: Sharks draft D Ryan Merkley No. 21
"We know how special he is in the offensive zone, but [Merkley] has to be a very good neutral-zone player," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. said. "He's got very good feet. If he can close in the neutral zone, angle plays toward the boards using his stick, then we can get the puck going up north faster."
A point-a-game player in juniors with 193 (39 goals, 154 points) in 188 games, Merkley has proven to be a consistent threat. The Sharks don't want to restrict his vision and playmaking ability.
With a plan to work on his game six days a week during the offseason, Merkley said he can't wait for his second NHL training camp. Last year, he spent a week during camp living with Burns to learn firsthand what a Norris Trophy winner does to prepare on and off the ice every day.
"It was an unreal experience," Merkley said. "It's certainly pretty cool going to the rink for my first camp and driving in with him."
The native of Mississauga, Ontario, is in the embryonic stages of his hockey career compared to Burns, a 34-year-old who has played 1,043 NHL games. Burns shared his day-to-day routine with Merkley that includes a strict diet, focus on fitness and the importance of rest and recovery.
"Having a guy like [Burns] gives us confidence working with [Merkley] and taking him under his wing to teach him some things," Wilson Jr. said.