When you are the first overall pick in the Ontario Hockey League draft, you are going to spend the next four years in the spotlight.
That light can be a glorious place to bask when things are going good, and a hard place to hide when they aren’t.
Gueph Storm uber-skilled defenceman Ryan Merkley is finding that out right now.
Without Google, many couldn’t tell me who the third overall pick in the 2016 OHL draft was, but everyone remembers Merkley went first.
It’s a situation that is magnified by the fact he’s a defenceman, where mistakes rarely go unnoticed by the 3,500 coaches in the stands and where they can often lead to goals against.
But let’s not forget that Merkley is 12 games into his second season of junior hockey. That he’s 17. That he led the team in scoring last year as a 16-year-old defenceman. That he leads the team in scoring this season.
If he was a third round draft pick – or maybe even third overall -- people would be talking about how he was the find of the century, not picking him apart.
I would argue that Merkley’s development at this stage is equal to, if not ahead of, several of the best Storm defencemen over the past few years. Not Drew Doughty, who was an anomaly, but certainly Matt Finn, Mike Caruso and Ryan Parent – none of were logging this amount of ice time or being put into these types of clutch situations a month into year two of their junior careers and all of whom are rightfully remembered as very good juniors.
We tend to forget the struggles some players had early on.
This isn’t about making apologies for Merkley. Much of the criticism is justified.
He often doesn’t move the puck quickly enough. Gets lost in the defensive zone. Is prone to emotional outbursts on the bench.
But those criticisms need to be made in context.
Will he grow as a player? Can he learn? Is he capable of change? No reason to believe he won’t.
Experience and maturity don’t get handed out in training camp, they take time and the proper environment and coaching.
George Burnett has been taking a very patient approach with Merkley, tolerating his indiscretions on the ice his outbursts on the bench.
“We know what Ryan’s capable of doing. He’s going to generate a tonne of opportunities,” Burnett said after one particularly tough outing a couple of weeks ago.
“He maybe tries to do too much under the circumstances. It’s a tough lesson, but that’s part of learning.”
If he doesn’t learn and if he doesn’t grow, then it’s a different discussion. And the kid gloves approach won’t go on forever.
But for now, I’ll side with history.