When one watches from a distance, it’s apparent there is plenty of energy bundled up in the package that sports #10 in a Kelowna Rockets’ jersey.
Have a seat beside Merkley and it’s easy to see and feel the energy. Competitive indeed, as those who frequent Rockets’ home games can attest. Now entering his third WHL season in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Merkley is intent on continuing to exhibit the high-octane efforts that supporters have come to appreciate and expect.
Productive and durable
He appeared in all 72 regular season games last season, collecting 20 goals and 70 assists. He played in each of the Rockets’ 19 playoff games, chipping in with five goals and 22 helpers. At the 2015 Memorial Cup, during which he celebrated his 18th birthday, Merkley scored three times and added two assists in Kelowna’s five games. That’s a busy, 96-game season.
“I think it’s a lot of luck,” Merkley laughed when asked about his durability. “Not getting hurt, it’s about looking after yourself off the ice. That’s huge as far as making sure your body is ready for 72 games a year. Being prepared to play into June? The biggest thing is looking after yourself.”
In current day hockey speak, it’s the term “motor” that has been liberally applied to Merkley’s on ice demeanor. It’s difficult not to notice Merkley. He makes his presence felt at both ends of the ice, a feisty forward whose transition game often tilts the rink in the Rockets’ favor.
It helps in part to play with trusted, familiar linemates and last season, Merkley was part of a trio that frequently spoiled the home faithful with prolific performances. Combined with Rourke Chartier (SJS) and Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI), the line possessed all of the key components, the attributes that can give opponents fits.
“I think Rourke and I, we seem to know where each other is out there,” Merkley explained when asked about the chemistry that contributed to the line’s 80 goals last season. “Tyrell was just such a hard-working, north-to-south guy, and a presence on the ice. He was there to look after us if anything ever happened. I think he’ll be ready for the next level. He knows his role.”
Goulbourne graduated from the WHL as one of the toughest customers seen in these parts in some time. His presence alone created space for Merkley and Chartier to excel offensively, but Goulbourne’s better-than-average speed, skating ability and offensive skills were often overlooked in favor of his pugilistic abilities. A nasty skate cut early in the playoffs ended Goulbourne’s season early, effectively ending his WHL career at the same time.
To date this season in Kelowna, the Rockets have yet to nail down a suitable replacement to play alongside Merkley and Chartier.
“We haven’t really found anyone yet,” Merkley said prior to a two-game road trip to face the Cougars in Prince George. “But I think that’s up to the coaches to decide and to help us to find a way to continue to play our roles and be productive.”
A coaching “three-in-three”
Speaking of coaches, Merkley enters his third season with the Rockets, playing for his third different bench boss. As a rookie, it was Ryan Huska behind the bench and last season, after Huska moved on to the AHL, Dan Lambert took over. This past summer, Lambert left to take a job with the Buffalo Sabres. Brad Ralph is now the Rockets head coach, not quite a dozen games into his WHL experience after coming over from the ECHL.
“Husk was a great coach,” Merkley said. “He knew his plan and helped us to follow through with it. He really had the players’ respect and he always had our backs. And Lambo, he was a real player’s coach and was always willing to talk. The guys could go to him for anything. He was great and it’s really neat to see him move on.
“With Brad, I think that makes us a bit of a new team in some ways, but we have quite a few guys back from last year. So that helps, the bond is there already and we’re all just trying to get to know Brad and he’s getting to know us. Moving forward, we have the makings of a good team here.”
As the Rockets progress together, Merkley is being looked upon to continue to be productive to ensure both team and individual success. He is no longer a wide-eyed rookie in the WHL, but rather a veteran who has earned a NHL entry-level contract. His role has changed and the responsibilities have broadened.
“It’s really busy and you do get used to it over the years,” Merkley said of adjusting to the 72-game WHL schedule. “You know it’s going to be a grind, but it does get you ready for the next level. It’s a bit of a challenge at the start. You’re away from your family from the start of it and moving in with billets.
“That can all be tough on young guys. But being around the older guys, it helps the younger guys to become a part of everything we do here. I think that’s one of the strengths with this organization, here in Kelowna.”
Coyotes came calling
“For me this year, Arizona told me that they want to see me produce more goals,” Merkley said. “So, I think it’s about getting into the mindset of shooting more in practice and shooting the puck now from different areas.”
The numbers confirm that Merkley has morphed into more of a playmaker during his WHL career. He’s embraced the role and has been very productive. When he has put the puck in the net, the tallies have often come from very close to the goal. Merkley is well aware that getting himself up close to the crease in pro hockey may be more difficult than in junior hockey. He has a plan, and he admits he is fortunate to have access to some creative coaching.
“I think at the next level it can be hard to get those scoring chances in tight,” Merkley said. “So I think shooting from further out is going to be important. For sure, Gelly will help.”
“Gelly”, is Kim Gellert, well known in hockey circles for his creative puck skills developmental approach. Gellert is a tremendous resource. The opportunity to watch him work with the players at practice is always entertaining, even a bit of a head-scratcher at times. Some of the ways in which he delivers the puck in the direction of the players are downright eye-popping. But the players in general are all quick to embrace the nuances and challenges. It is a very interesting approach, focused on being as well-prepared as possible.
“We work on things after practice like taking passes and one-timers,” Merkley said. “Just the little skills like taking pucks off your feet or picking them out of the air. All those little things can really help you in a game. To have them in your tool box is pretty valuable.”
A Merkley family secret
Another “tool”, so to speak, comes in the form of a dynamic skating move, where Merkley appears to open his hips while in stride, creating what appears to be kind of a stutter step. The motion can freeze an unsuspecting opponent for a split second, creating open ice or a wider passing lane. Regulars at Prospera Place know the move. Perhaps it is time for social media types to conjure up a name for Merkley’s tidy little maneuver?
“I actually watched my brother do it over the years back in minor hockey,” Merkley said. “I wanted to learn how to do it, and learn how to incorporate it into my game. I’ve heard it called a “Mohawk Step” or “Mohawk Turn”. I probably use it 15 times a game.”
While Merkley agrees that he has been the beneficiary of the input from many teammates and coaches in Kelowna, he may have had a leg up on some of his peers in the form of his older brother, Jay. He was selected by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the first round, third overall, at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. His junior career included stints with Lethbridge and the Swift Current Broncos, totaling 281 games. He has moved on from junior to CIS hockey with the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, a beneficiary of the WHL’s scholarship program.
“He decided to go the university route this year,” Nick said. “He made that decision and he’s kind of moving on with his life, getting an education and using those years of education he gets from playing in the WHL. He was an early draft pick and got to do things here in the league. He kind of took the process a different direction than I am now.”
Nick Merkley has parlayed his junior career into a multitude of opportunities. Selected by Kelowna in the first round, ninth overall, of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, he will soon eclipse the 200-game plateau with the Rockets. He is also firmly on the Hockey Canada radar.
As a 16-year-old, he was an assistant captain for the Canada Pacific U17 team at the 2014 World U17 Hockey Challenge. Before returning to Kelowna for his second WHL season, he was also an assistant captain for Canada’s gold-medal winning U18 team at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He skated for Team Orr at the 2015 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and this past summer, he participated in Team Canada’s U20 evaluation camp.
There was also his NHL experience this past summer, where Merkley was able to get a taste of the hockey future he so craves.
“I went to the Coyotes’ rookie camp in September and I felt I was going pretty good,” Merkley said. “Then I suffered a shoulder injury, well, my collarbone, and that affected the rest of the process a bit.”
With the likes of Dylan Strome, Anthony Duclair and Max Domi among the Coyotes’ prospects, Merkley looks like a great fit for an organization that is quite fairly considered to be in total rebuild mode.
“At least I got to be involved, to see and talk with the guys,” Merkley said. “It was neat to play two games in LA. There are some great young guys to play with. I ended up doing some rehab work there and I got to meet Shane Doan, so that was pretty cool.”
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