Nick Merkley will have a special sweater to wear this year (Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
Less than a month after playing in the Memorial Cup final, Nick Merkley will be in the spotlight again as an NHL first-round pick.Since the teenagers taken at the NHL draft this summer aren’t old enough to drink, we’ll assume Nick Merkley celebrated being taken 30th overall by Arizona with an Oreo ice cream sandwich instead. That was the junk food of choice for the Kelowna Rockets right winger after road trips this season, and it served him well: Merkley finished sixth in WHL scoring and helped Kelowna drub the competition in the playoffs. The Rockets dropped just three games on their way to a dream final with the Brandon Wheat Kings before that showdown turned out to be a four-game nightmare for the Wheaties. “Sweeping them was crazy,” Merkley said. “We were just trying to get a split (in Brandon), then we got both games. It was huge for us.”
The run ended in the Memorial Cup final when the Rockets were shut down by Oshawa, but Merkley did all he could in that title game. Though he’s not big at 5-foot-10, 187 pounds, the Calgary product had no problem getting up close and personal with Generals giant Michael McCarron (6-foot-6, 225 pounds).Along with his competitive nature, Merkley is also known for his playmaking and his ability to control the puck, which he did a lot in that final game against Oshawa. Part of the reason Kelowna was in the Memorial Cup to begin with was the dynamic pairing of Merkley and Edmonton prospect Leon Draisaitl. The big German joined the Rockets in January and while a first effort in uniting the pair fell flat, coach Dan Lambert gave it another go when injuries in the playoffs dictated a move, and the switch paid off. It turns out the kids just needed time to get to know each other. “If you get that bonding off the ice, it helps,” Merkley said. “Being close on and off is huge. He’s been through it all and can show me the way. He’s been through the combine, the draft, all that. He’s tried to take me under his wing.” With many of Kelowna’s leaders graduating, Merkley will take a more substantial team role himself, as will San Jose pick Rourke Chartier. There won’t be much of a drop-off in the team’s excellence thanks to younger players such as center Dillon Dube maturing, so Merkley may have another long season ahead of him in 2015-16. In the meantime, the talented and tenacious right winger will strive to get better in all facets of the game. “It’s the little things, like scoring from further out,” he said. “At the next level, you don’t get as many chances in tight or on breakaways, so I have to shoot from the top of the circle more.” Scouts did want to see a more fluid stride from the playmaker this season, but his movement looked pretty good at the Memorial Cup. Otherwise, the big question mark involves Merkley’s size, which was a big reason he dropped in the draft (THN ranked him 15th in Draft Preview). Regardless, the folks who have seen him grow as a player know he’ll bring a good attitude. “He’s one of those guys who just loves to play,” said Rockets GM-owner Bruce Hamilton. “He has fun with the game, it’s not a job for him. Nick is just a pleasure to be around.” Unless you’re an opposing defenseman, of course. This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.