NHL Player Development seems to always result in more questions than answers. How likely is it for a top pick to pan out? What makes a player a “steal”? Last Word On Hockey has a series on how to properly develop prospects from all different spots throughout the draft. This week’s piece involves draft picks in the back half of the first round and how they were used early in their careers.
NHL Player Development Of First-Round Picks: Nick Merkley
In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 84 total selections made between 16th overall and 30th overall on forwards playing in North America. Looking at all 84 forwards, they were split into different categories. Those categories were “Forwards Deemed NHL-Ready and Brought In Immediately When Ready,” “Forwards Near NHL-Ready and Brought In Immediately When Near-Ready,” “Forwards Rushed Slightly,” “Forwards Rushed,” “Forwards Forced,” “A Little Patience,” “Patience,” and “Too Much Patience.” And all that comes down to NHL player development. How the teams treated every step of their prospects’ development.
There were six forwards who fell into the sixth category, “patience,” on the list. Of those six players, one made his NHL impact in his DY+6 season. That player was Nick Merkley.
In this piece, we will be using stats from elite prospects (raw stats) and hockey reference (ice time). Additionally, the analytics we are using are as follows: even-strength offence goals above replacement (EVO), even-strength defence goals above replacement (EVD), wins above replacement (WAR), and goals above replacement (GAR). Those analytics are from evolving hockey (subscription required).
NHL Player Development Of Nick Merkley
Nick Merkley, drafted 30th overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2015 NHL draft, came out of the Kelowna Rockets organization of the WHL. In his DY-1 season, he scored 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 points in 66 games, for 0.879 points per game. That ranked 34th out of the aforementioned 84 forwards in DY-1 production. The following season, Merkley would post 20 goals and 70 assists for 90 points in 72 games, for 1.25 points per game. That ranked 33rd among those same 84 forwards in DY production. After being drafted, Merkley would play two more seasons in the WHL, before making the jump to the AHL for three seasons.
In his DY+1 season with Kelowna, Merkley scored 17 goals and 31 assists for 48 points in 43 games, for 1.116 points per game. That ranked 40th amongst the 82 forwards still outside of the NHL in DY+1 production. In his final WHL season, Merkley posted 23 goals and 40 assists for 63 points in 63 games, for exactly one point per game. That ranked 33rd amongst the 70 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+2 production.
Nick Merkley Gets AHL Time
As mentioned, Merkley would get plenty of AHL time following his WHL tenure. With the Tucson Roadrunners, the affiliates of the Coyotes, he scored 18 goals and 21 assists for 39 points in 38 games, for 1.026 points per game. That ranked third out of the 46 forwards still outside of the NHL in DY+3 production. Following that strong AHL rookie season, he scored 10 goals and 24 assists for 34 points in 45 games, for 0.756 points per game. That ranked seventh out of the 31 forwards still outside of the NHL in DY+4 production.
Going into his third AHL season, Merkley would see himself getting dealt to the New Jersey Devils. Splitting between the Roadrunners and the Devils AHL affiliates, the Binghamton Devils, Merkley would score 11 goals and 24 assists for 35 assists in 54 games for 0.648 points per game. That ranked seventh out of the 23 forwards still outside the NHL in DY+5 production.
How Nick Merkley Was Used
Finally getting his first big taste of the NHL, Merkley got to play for the Devils. However, it would not be a full-time role. He played just five AHL games, where he scored three points. He also was loaned out to Finland, where he played for Assat, scoring four goals and nine assists for 13 points in 19 games. Meanwhile, he slotted into just 27 NHL games with New Jersey, where he averaged 11:30 time on ice per game. In that small and limited role, he would score two goals and eight assists for 10 points. His analytics pointed to maybe some underlying potential. His EVO (1.8) was solid and his EVD (-1.3) was below replacement level, but not terrible. Overall, his WAR (0.3) and GAR (1.4) were above replacement level, at the least.
In his second NHL season, Merkley would see himself once again getting traded, this time to the New York Rangers organization. Overall, he would play 59 AHL games between the Devils and Rangers AHL affiliate Hartford Wolfpack. He scored 16 goals and 30 assists for 46 points in that span. He would see just nine NHL games, all with the Devils, scoring three points, while averaging 12:25 per game. Once again, his analytics were steady, albeit in a limited role. His EVO (1.0) went down slightly, while his EVD (0.3) improved by quite a bit. His WAR (0.2) and GAR (1.3) were essentially the same as his first season.
Merkley Leaves For Russia
In what would have been his third year in the NHL, Merkley would instead make the decision to head overseas to Russia. Fun fact, that is this season. He has played 60 KHL games this season with Dinamo Minsk, where he has produced 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points.
It’s safe to say that Merkley was not the best prospect. But, he also was not developed the best. His underlying numbers pointed to maybe an underrated third-liner. But then again, there’s a deeper reason behind him not getting the opportunities. Not to mention, his KHL production doesn’t exactly scream someone who could produce in the NHL.
Arizona Coyotes Draft Choices
A player who the Coyotes missed on, twice, in the 2015 NHL draft was Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes. In his draft year, he produced 13 total points in 30 games at the highest level of Finnish hockey (Liiga). After one more season in Liiga, he scored just shy of 50 points for the Hurricanes as a rookie. Now, he is a consistent 25+ goal-scorer for the Hurricanes.
Before being drafted, Merkley was described as a player with a high effort level and an incredible motor. He played a strong 200-foot game, able to defend well. But the concerns were about offensive upside, size, and whether he was the play driver on a stacked Kelowna team. Based on how his stats after being drafted, at all levels, dropped year to year, those questions were answered. Merkley could not overcome his weak points, and it became clear that he benefited from a very good surrounding core. It’s unfortunate but true, Nick Merkley was not the right choice, and the signs were there.
Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, and NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey.
Photo credit: Ron Chenoy – USA Sports Today