The Arizona Coyotes have some practice in dealing with tough injuries to top picks. Connor Murphy missed nearly a full season with an ACL tear after being drafted, and is now the owner of a six-year deal. Christian Dvorak was picked in the second round despite missing an entire season of junior hockey, yet that is looking like a steal as Dvorak prepares to take the next step.
Nick Merkley, #6 on our countdown of top prospects under the age of 21, hopes to be the latest of Coyotes’ draft choices to reach great heights after suffering a long-term injury. And he has the skills to do just that.
#6 - Nick Merkley - Right Wing - Kelowna Rockets - 30th overall pick, 2015 NHL Draft
Highest Rank: 5
Lowest Rank: 13
When thinking about the kind of player Nick Merkley could possibly end up emulating, the name Ray Whitney comes to mind. Like Whitney, Merkley is a bit on the small side (Merkley is 5’ 11", 192 pounds to Whitney’s 5’ 10", 180 pounds). And also like Whitney, Merkley’s best attributes are his vision and passing abilities.
Merkley put up an eye-catching 70 assists in 72 games en route to a 90 point draft-eligible season. An assist per game means that the offense was more or less running through Merkley’s stick every night. For a team looking for more options on top and down low on the power play, that kind of ability to find teammates the puck is almost impossible for penalty killers to stop.
But Merkley has been improving his primary scoring totals too. In his draft year, he lit the lamp 20 times. Through just 43 games in his Draft +1 season, Merkley scored 17 times. Had injury not struck, Merkley would have blown away his career best 25 goal campaign set in 2013-14.
But injury did strike, which is now the biggest question mark facing Merkley in his path to the NHL. ACL tears can be tough on players in a league that more and more prizes speed and quickness.
There are two things working in Merkley’s favor though. First, his rehab has been the responsibility of the Coyotes since February, and if Connor Murphy is any indication, they have some experience getting players back into top form. And second, Merkley is very young, even by prospect standards. He will not turn 20 until May of 2017. If anybody can bounce back from a tough injury, it will be him.
Merkley’s injury will likely delay his development by another season. The Coyotes can afford to be patient and allow him to rehab his injury on his own schedule. But if he can recover, he will be a tremendous playmaking option for the Coyotes to complement their many excellent goal scoring prospects.
Editor's Note: Some of our panelists ranked players significantly higher or lower than the final consensus ranking. On occasion, we will provide their rationale for their different opinion.
Dissenting Opinion: Sarah Hall- Ranked #13
Nick Merkley is an interesting prospect for the Coyotes for many reasons. He was drafted 30th, when most people thought he would be a mid-first rounder. With Merkley skating now, hopefully he can give the Coyotes coaches a full camp. When I spoke to him in July he was so excited to just start skating again and hopefully show the coaches what he could do.
With another year in Kelowna on Merkley's radar, he should have a larger leadership role than he did last season. This will give him time to rehab properly and build he speed back up without having to worry about playing against AHL/NHL Players.
I don't have Merkley ranked as high as the others due to not seeing his full potential at the first Rookie Camp and the second Development Camp. If he has a strong camp, he will raise his stock with me. Hopefully he can stay healthy this year and show us what he can really do, if not he may drop down my list again.