It’s challenging for Championship teams, or even teams that consistently make the playoffs, to remain competitive because of where they pick at the end of round 1. The Washington Capitals have done a fantastic job at finding top talent in that area of the draft: Semyon Varlamov, Mike Green, Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, Andre Burakovsky, and obviously Evgeny Kuznetsov. A lot of those players can be summed up As high risk, high reward. If those drafts were redone, all of those players would be picked earlier than when they went. There are a couple players in the 2018 NHL Draft that fit that description, but one player in particular really takes the crown.
Type OHL defensemen Ryan Merkley’s name into Google and the words “boom or bust” will be used to describe him in about every article. Why the “bust” part? Well he’s pretty horrific on the defensive side of the game, sometimes acting like he doesn’t care at all. On top of that there are reports of off ice issues with coaches and teammates. Add all of that together and it’s easy to see why teams are wary to draft him. There’s reports that he’s even on some “don’t draft” lists for a handful of teams (7 teams didn’t even interview him during the combine). Why gamble on a player that doesn’t seem to want to work on his game and could cause riffs in the locker room?
Well because there is the “boom” part. Merkley is an elite-level offensive defensemen. Corey Pronman, a fantastic prospect writer for The Athletic, called Merkley maybe the best offensive defensemen he’s seen ever. His offensive skills are arguably better than unanimous #1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. There’s a legit comparisons to Merkley and Erik Karlsson, at least on the offensive side. His vision and passing in the offensive zone is unreal. He could be looking one way, then perfectly dish out a pass in the opposite direction to set up a teammate for a wide open net chance. Or deke around a couple of defenders and fire a shot top corner.
But there are precedents for players like Merkley: high octane offensive defensemen with character issues that simply don’t pan out. Recent players that fit this description are Sean Day and Tony DeAngelo. Both of those players are still young and certainly aren’t busts, but they also haven’t shown that “elite” skill they possess. They also aren’t as skilled as Merkley. Frankly, no one really is.
It’s important to keep in mind that Merkley is one of the youngest players in the draft, turning 18 in August. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t very mature when I was 17 (actually, I’m still not). There’s certainly a belief that he will mature enough to turn his game around. He’s even admitted that he needs to work on his defensive game and watch his temper on the ice, so at least he acknowledges the issue. Now it’s a matter of fixing them.
If the Capitals want to remain competitive, without getting top picks these are the type of players they need to take flyers on. Is there a chance Merkley might not work out and never play in the NHL? Definitely. But the players that are picked outside the top 10 are basically gambles anyways, so they might as well go for the guy that has the highest ceiling. And make no doubt about it, Merkley has one of the highest ceilings among all in this year’s draft, so if they draft him and he reaches that potential, they could have the future elite offensive defensemen in the league that they took with the 31st pick.
2017-2018 OHL Stats: 63 games, 13 goals, 54 assists, 67 points, -2
By Luke Adomanis