NHL Prospects

Ryan Merkley likely No. 1 pick at 2016 OHL Draft

The Guelph Storm had quite the inspiring run during the 2013-14 Ontario Hockey League season. The first-seed in the OHL standings with 108 points, they went on to claim the league championship before becoming runners-up to the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup tournament.

Two years later, though, they finished dead-last with just 32 points, securing an astonishingly low 13 wins in 2015-16.

Things were so dismal this season for the Storm that their now-former head coach Bill Stewart actually resigned in December. At the time, his team had only won two of their 27 games played — a statistic that had some people wondering if they would set the all-time OHL record for fewest wins in a single season. Guelph improved very slightly following Stewart’s resignation, but they never even got close to where they wanted to be.

As is the case with most hockey leagues (the NHL excluded, due to the new draft lottery format), Guelph will actually benefit from its nightmarish 2015-16 campaign. Finishing in last place means they will make the first selection this Saturday at the 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft. Luckily for them, there’s a stud defender right at the top of the draft class.

Mississauga native Ryan Merkley was named the GTMMHL Player of the Year this season, having played for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens.

He scored a goal and three assists in six games at the OHL Cup and helped Canada secure the silver medal at the U16 Youth Olympic Games. Merkley began playing minor midget hockey a year early, in his bantam season in 2013-14. Having played for the same team against the same quality of talent for three years straight, the defender has excelled under the pressure of it all.

And now, he has even more pressure to handle, since most believe that he will go first overall at the OHL Draft.

“It helps (having begun minor midget hockey a year early) with handling all the pressure with all the scouts there,” Merkley told Mississauga.com. “It’s nice having that experience of just knowing what to expect leading up to draft day.

“It would be something special (going first overall at the draft). Being number one in the OHL would be a really big deal and a nice accomplishment.”

Passing on Merkley would make absolutely no sense for the Storm; with a lackluster cast of defenders heading into the 2016-17 season, they have a dire need for a highly-talented addition. After a mass graduation of their 2014 champions to professional hockey, as well as Robby Fabbri’s early promotion to the NHL this season, Guelph has been left with hardly any star-power, both on offense and on the blue-line.

The one bright spot on the Storm roster this season was their 2015 first-round pick, Isaac Ratcliffe. The rookie forward may have only scored five goals and eight assists in 46 games, but even the most talented of 16-year-olds have struggled to produce in their inaugural major junior campaigns (see: Dylan Strome).

A big-bodied forward at 6’4″, Ratcliffe has break-out potential for his sophomore campaign. After all, he was a big name at the draft due to his unique combination of size and offensive ability, so Guelph is counting on him to have a big draft year (he is eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft).

Essentially, since they already have Ratcliffe at the forward position – and also since talented, right-handed defenders are incredibly tough to find in junior hockey – the defense-deprived Storm would be foolish to pass up on Merkley at this weekend’s draft.

But Merkley himself is not worried about where he may end up.

“I just want to get a regular shift, be playing somewhere where I can develop,” Merkley told Mississauga.com. “Hopefully it’s somewhere where I can get better, see ice time and get ready for my (NHL) draft year.”

His NHL draft year still two years away (2018), Merkley has plenty of time to prepare. It’s humble of him to express that he has no clue where he will end up, but unless something crazy happens, Merkley will be pulling on a Guelph Storm jersey on the draft stage this Saturday.

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