Toronto's Ryan Merkley (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
An offensive defenseman extraordinaire, Merkley is one of two highly-touted blueliners up for selection in April. Will Bode Wilde of the Chicago Mission steal his crown, or will Merkley's junior potential win out?
When the OHL draft is held on April 9, the Guelph Storm will make the first pick. And the Storm have a very interesting decision, because there are two intriguing, yet different defensemen available to them. Ryan Merkley is an offensive wizard who comes in at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, while Bode Wilde is a big-bodied, all-around blueliner. Merkley plays for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens and comes from the Ryan Ellis/Ryan Murphy school – similarly skilled guys who ruled junior, but were not sure things at the NHL level (though Ellis is shining with Nashville). Wilde is a typical pro prospect, more in the Jakob Chychrun vein. Playing for the Chicago Mission, the 6-foot-2 beast has committed to Harvard, so there is some risk in a team taking him early, unless they truly believe they will convince him to go OHL.
With Merkley playing in the GTHL, the spotlight has been searing for most of the season – and he's totally cool with that.
“It's exciting with all the pressure on you,” he said. “You're always the other team's target and everyone is looking for you. It's fun.”
A standout for Canada at the Youth Olympic Games, Merkley helped propel the team to the final, where they lost gold to an outstanding collection of talents from Team USA. Watching him play at the OHL Cup on Friday, it was easy to see why scouts go bonkers for the young man; he's ultra-confident with the puck on his stick and his creativity stokes his elite playmaking ability.
“It's very rare that you go to a game and you see that much skill on the ice,” said one OHL scout. “He always has one 'how-the-hell-did-he-do-that?' moment. This kid's vision is out of this world. He's just fun to watch.”
Not surprisingly, the Jr. Canadiens rearguard has a checklist of NHLers that he takes cues from and they all fall under an umbrella of excellence.
“I like to watch Erik Karlsson,” Merkley said. “The speed and the way he works with the puck is just incredible. Duncan Keith, the way he logs those hard minutes in the big games – watching him in the Stanley Cup final was incredible. And Kris Letang, I like watching him offensively; he's very skilled, very poised with the puck.”
Just today, Merkley was named GTHL player of the year, courtesy his 44 points in 33 games for the Canadiens. Any number of teams, including the Canadiens, still have a shot at winning the OHL Cup, with the final going on Monday at Mattamy Centre in Toronto (formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens).
While there are some other talents this year, such as Merkley's forward teammate Kirill Nizhnikov and Toronto Red Wings center Barrett Hayton, Wilde and Merkley are the big prizes in the draft. In talking to scouts and insiders around the league, I still can't get a sense of which one will go first and talent hawks are just as enthusiastic about Wilde.
“Big-bodied, moves the puck well, skates well – he's the prototypical pro-style defenseman,” said the scout. And Bode has a shot.”
Will the Harvard commitment be enough to scare off Guelph, or even Sudbury, the team slated to draft second? Flint is scheduled to pick third and given how anarchic things have been for the Firebirds, they'll have to be very sure the player they choose will want to come to town – especially since they whiffed on their first selection last year, Ryan McLeod (who was eventually traded to Mississauga, where he is thriving).
It's an interesting debate at the top. Merkley may be the better junior player, while Wilde may turn out to be the safer NHL prospect. Would a team get more years out of Merkley, since he would hypothetically need more development time before making an NHL impact? One OHL GM I spoke with said that you just have to take the “best player available,” and that could very well be Merkley.
But it could also be Wilde. We'll have to wait until April 9 to find out.