Merkley’s magic on the man-advantage for the London Knights

Ryan Merkley of the London Knights (28) is congratulated after scoring a goal by teammates Alec Regula (72), Liam Foudy (18) and Connor McMichael (11). Jim Van Horne/980 CFPL

When you are facing Ryan Merkley and the London Knights, you want to avoid a certain something that you often catch out of the corner of your eye when you are on the ice.

It’s a striped arm with an orange band firing into the air to signal a penalty against your team.

It’s very fitting that Merkley is a Sharks prospect. He can make an opposing penalty kill look like floating chum in a small pool. No match for the quick-strike attack that he and the London Knights power play can bring.

In London’s last nine games Merkley has two goals and 17 assists. One of those goals and 10 of those helpers have come on a man advantage that is running at a 35.4 per cent success rate over the same stretch. That’s better than a goal every three times the Knights top unit trots out when a penalty is called.

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“Every time we get a power play, the whole first unit tends to stand right up on [on the bench] knowing we have a chance to score,” says London co-captain Liam Foudy.

“He’s the brains of the operation,” adds Foudy, who has five of his 23 goals this year on the man advantage. “Having him out there makes things easier for all of us.”

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Alec Regula and Jonathan Gruden can attest to that. Regula tends to line up to the left of the opposition’s net and Merkley seems to find him as naturally as a hand finds a glove. Regula became the 12th London Knights defenceman in franchise history to hit 20 goals on the season. Thirteen of his goals have been power-play goals.

Connor McMichael is now up to 40 goals on the year and 15 of those have been on the man advantage. Not every one of McMichael’s or Regula’s goals have had Merkley assists attached to them but just having him on the ice is problematic for penalty killers.

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“He’s unpredictable,” explains Foudy. “He’s one of the smartest guys on the ice so you never know where he’s going to go. He doesn’t have the hardest shot but he doesn’t have to because he knows how to throw goalies off.”

Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter feels he developed a greater appreciation for Merkley’s odd-man abilities after Merkley became a Knight in late September.

“Now that we have him here we realize that we may have been a little too hard on the guys who had to defend against him when he was in Guelph,” chuckles Hunter. “He does things that are just “Merk” things. Some players have abilities that you can’t teach and that’s a kudos to him. You learn you just have to let him go so that he can do what he does best.”

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Merkley is a good poster-child for a couple of hockey phrases because he brings them to life.

He “walks the line” as well as anyone, meaning he can drag or carry the puck along the blue line to either draw players toward him or find lanes to the net or to teammates that he can use to rip a pass right along the ice for a scoring chance or sometimes just a complete tap-in.

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Merkley also sets up “on the half wall” as well as anyone. He can glide to the middle of the boards between the blue line and the corner and zip passes across the ice, feed tippable pucks into the crease or shoot all on his own.

“He’s very hard to lockdown. He’s very dangerous and he can make adjustments,” says Hunter. “He can do one thing and just when you think you can do everything right [against him] he can still somehow get it through you. He is a nightmare for penalty kills to shut down.”

Ask Merkley about it and he just smiles.

“This is the most fun I have ever had playing on a power play.”

Merkley ranks second among OHL defencemen in overall scoring and 20th overall. The Mississauga native and former first overall selection of the Guelph Storm is at the top of the charts when it comes to assists on the man advantage. He has 33 of those.

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Power play chances have been at a premium in all hockey leagues for a couple of seasons. You don’t get as many as you used to so you have to make good on as many as you can.

The Knights rank near the bottom of the OHL in terms of opportunities with the man advantage. They have had the seventh-fewest in 2019-20.

The fact that they have been converting those chances at an increasing rate is good news for them and bad news for the teams they are facing.

Every time a referee’s arm goes into the air and an opponent goes to the penalty box, Merkley and his mates get another chance to work their magic. And that magic has been working very well.

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