It was a long road back for Nick Merkley.
Now, with the monotony and uncertainty of rehab behind him, and a dozen Western Hockey League games under his belt, the Kelowna Rockets’ centre is back to doing what he does best.
After a slow start to the 2016-17 WHL campaign, the Arizona Coyotes’ prospect is returning to form, scoring his first three goals of the season in the Rockets’ last three games.
It’s welcome news for the team and for Merkley, whose 2015-16 season ended abruptly last Feb. 5 when he suffered a serious injury to his right knee against the Spokane Chiefs.
Rockets’ assistant coach Kris Mallette said Merkley’s successful return from a severe injury is a testament to his character.
“Nick’s work ethic is never a question, it’s contagious,” Mallette said of Merkley, a first-round draft pick of the Coyotes in 2015.
“Nick really stuck to his (rehab) regimen and now he’s back and starting to play with more confidence.”
“That’s a big reason he was drafted, because he works as hard as he does,” added Mallette. “This year we’re leaning on him a little more, and he was a little snake bitten for a few games.
“But good on him for sticking with it and it’s nice to see him finally get rewarded.”
Rediscovering his timing and his confidence have been a work in progress for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Merkley.
He took another step forward in both departments in Wednesday night’s 5-1 home-ice loss to Kamloops, notching his team’s only goal and generating a handful of quality scoring chances.
“With my injury it’s taken some time to settle back in and get used to the pace again, and that’s starting to happen now,” said Merkley, who has eight points in 12 games this season.
“I’ve settled in with my linemates, (Calvin Thurkauf) is playing great, he’s creating a lot of opportunities for us. And I’m just getting to the net.”
While the injury hasn’t affected Merkley’s work ethic or made him any less tenacious, Mallette said the Rockets’ centre is getting a little more selective when it comes to putting his body at risk.
“If you’ve watched Nick the last few years, he’s pretty reckless,” Mallette said. “He gets in on the forecheck, runs into people, he’s like a small Tasmanian devil. He’s a little smarter about those decisions now, that may come partly from Arizona.
“He doesn’t have to run around as much, he’s got to use his strength and his smarts more efficiently and I think you see him doing that.”
The Rockets (9-8-0) will be in Langley tonight for their first meeting of the season with the Vancouver Giants…Kelowna will host the Medicine Hat Tigers Saturday at Prospera Place. Face-off is 7:05 p.m. The Tigers (11-4-1-0), who lead the Central Division, defeated the B.C. Division-leading Prince George Cougars 6-4 on Wednesday.