Rockets’ Merkley back to familiar form

Kelowna forward leading WHL team’s offense after long road back from knee surgery

A year after the most serious injury of his career, the Kelowna Rockets are once again getting a chance to appreciate the real Nick Merkley.

With 20 points—including eight goals—in his last 11 games, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Calgary native is reaffirming his status as one of the WHL’s most skilled and dominant forwards.

Following six months of intensive rehab for a torn ACL in his right knee last February, Merkley had struggled to regain his past form, which included a 90-point season in 2014-15.

But with time, persistence, patience and the help of some skilled line mates, Merkley said he’s feeling a lot closer to his normal self.

“I don’t really know how to describe it, but (coming off) the injury, I just wasn’t the same as usual,” said Merkley, who had 29 points in 39 games prior to his recent hot streak.

“I think lately, I’m just competing a lot harder, getting on pucks, being aggressive in the zone and creating turnovers,” he added.

“Playing with (Calvin Thurkauf and Reid Gardner) has helped me, too. Thurks has been scoring well and that picks everybody up. Things are going well right now.”

Based on what Jason Smith has observed throughout his long career in the game, the Rockets’ head coach said the challenges Merkley has faced with the extended time off following the injury are not at all unusual.

“If you listen to people who have had similar, major injuries, the next year can be a real hard one,” Smith said. “After all the rehab and time away, you might be feeling good physically, have energy and jump, but it takes time to get back to game speed. Your reaction time might be off, and to be able react quickly and instinctively is so important.”

And from what Smith has seen over the last three to four weeks, the Arizona Coyotes’ prospect looks to have his game pretty much back on track.

“Now Nick is back to the point where he’s comfortable making plays,” Smith said. “The big thing is his vision, he’s tapping into those natural skills where it’s all becoming second-nature again. He’s one of those players that have the knack, to be able to see things ahead of the pace.

“He’s also working hard at becoming a more complete player and that’s helped, too.”

After being cut from Canada’s national junior team in December for the second year in a row, Merkley admits his wasn’t in the best head space midway through the season. In the long run, Merkley said the rejection simply served as motivation.

“It was tough mentally, you obviously want to take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “It took some time, but I had to bounce back. I used it as fuel to do better and get back to playing the way I can.”

And no one is happier to see his return to form than the Rockets who—thanks in large part to Merkley—have won seven of their last nine games and are in the process of trying to chase down both the Prince George Cougars and Kamloops Blazers in the B.C. Division.

The Rockets (34-20-5-0) will host the Edmonton Oil Kings tonight. Face-off at Prospera Place is 7:05 p.m.

Kelowna will then hit the road for three games in three nights this weekend—Friday in Kamloops, Saturday in Seattle and Sunday in Spokane.