Every so often a Calgary born kid pokes his head above the crowd and becomes a noteworthy NHL prospect. The Flames franchise, however, have made a habit of not drafting local guys, be it players who were born and raised here, or guys who spent their formative junior seasons here. The one exception I can recall over the years is Brent Krahn of the Calgary Hitmen, whom the Flames took 9th overall in 2000 (aside – don’t take goalies in the first round!).
Nick Merkley might be the player to break that habit. The 5’11”, 190 pound centre/right winger was the highest scoring draft eligible player in the WHL this season and has long been considered one of the best young players on the Calgary scene.
Merkley’s consensus ranking is a mid-first round pick, so there’s a fair chance Merkely will be around when the Flames take the podium. He’s also the guy FN readers most expect the Flames to take in the first round according to our official poll (which you can see to the right of this article).
Merkley’s scouting reports are glowing when it comes to his competitiveness, hockey IQ and puck distribution skills. Future Considerations has this to say about him:
An offensive forward that makes an impact in the game every time he touches the puck…improved skater this season and possess more jump in his step…not big by any stretch but shows a willingness to throw his weight around…impressive hockey sense and ability to think the game…very creative and crafty with the puck…plays a complete 200-foot game.
Craig Button notes that Merkley is a playmaker, but also highly competitive:
Nick has a motor that never stops. He simply doesn’t take kindly to resistance and is always pushing through obstacles. He’s smart and knows how to take full advantage of his skills and combined with his determination, he’s an undeniable force.
I am fortunate enough to have a friend who worked with the AAA Calgary Buffaloes when Nick went through the system. He had high praise for the player (paraphrased):
– Nick was utterly dominant as a teenager at the AAA level and often times seemed to toy with his opponents. To the degree that he would be double shifted many nights if the team was behind or needed a win.
– Nick loves hockey. Even at a young age he ate, slept and breathed the game. He was always one of the most passionate players and most eager to practice and improve.
– Although he doesn’t have a big frame, Nick is very strong and thick because he’s a committed gym rat. He’s never going to be tall, but he’s tough, competitive and not easy to push off the puck.
So why isn’t Merkley a consensus top-10 pick? Some reports note that while his skating is good, he’s not quite as fast or dynamic as you would expect from a guy below 6′. He also doesn’t have the greatest shot, which is why his stat line tends to favour assists over goals.
Finally, Merkley began the season like a house on fire, scoring 46 points in 28 games through the first three months of the season (1.64 PPG). After that, he settled into a relatively pedestrian point-per-game pace through the rest of the regular season, a downturn which is likely still fresh in scout’s minds.
Merkley boasts some of the better stats out of the WHL this year. As mentioned, his 90-points (20 goals, 70 assists) were the most of any draft eligible forward from the dub this season. His PPG pace of 1.19 was second only to Matt Barzal (a likely top-10 pick) as was his NHLe (27) and he led the Kelowna Rockets in scoring, despite being one of the youngest guys on the squad. In fact, Nick is a May, 1997 birthday and therefore on the younger side of things overall this draft year, which speaks well to his dominance at the junior level already.
The one area Merkley wasn’t quite as elite in was percentage of team scoring, which tends to show which players are driving the bus offensively for their clubs. Matthew Barzal, for instance came in at an incredible 43% this season, whereas Merkley was 4th in the WHL at about 30%.
It’s important to note here, however, that Merkely’s Rockets were pretty deep so he probably didn’t play as much as guys like Barzal. According to CHL Stats ice time estimations, Nick played the least of the players ranked in top-4 by the team scoring% metric. For example, it’s estimated Barzal skated for over 47% of his team’s ES ice time when he was in the line-up. Nick was down around 35%.
The other minor area of concern is Merkley’s ES and PP points split. Last year he managed just 46 of his 90 points at even strength, giving him a near 50-50 ratio between the two game states. Typically it’s better to see more scoring at ES than the man advantage, but it’s not the end of the world.
Nick Merkely has a lot of the qualities the Flames will be looking for in a first round pick. He’s a natural right shot who can play either centre or the wing. He’s smart, crafty and a great puck distributor, not to mention determined and competitive. His numbers this year are very good though just this side of truly elite. Merkely is definitely the kind of person and talent who could take a big step forward in his draft+1 season, however.
Though the Flames may be tempted to look for size given their collection of smaller guys up front already, Merkley’s stature probably shouldn’t be a knock against him given his core strength and commitment to fitness. In some ways he kind of sounds like Sam Bennett in his willingness to engage (though Bennett is definitely the more explosive skater).
It will be interesting to see if Merkley lasts until 15th overall. If he does, I expect him to be solidly on the club’s radar.