With almost no major junior experience to fall back on, Nick Merkley still found a way to cope with the pressure of last spring’s Western Hockey League playoffs.
In seven post-season games with the Kelowna Rockets, the skilled Calgary-born centre proved a quick study, tallying three assists and generating offensive chances on virtually every shift.
If his playoff effort of last season proves to be more than just a flashy debut, then head coach Ryan Huska sees no reason the 16-year-old Merkley can’t play a prominent role in his rookie season in the WHL.
“We were in a situation (injuries) where you hate throwing a young guy in like we had to, but in the time he spent with us, he gained the trust and confidence in our coaches very quickly,” said Huska. “We were at the point we used him for a lot of minutes, in fairly key situations and he handled it well.
“If he shows he deserves to be capable of playing lots of minutes for us this year, then we’ll use him that way again.”
With considerable depth on the Rockets’ roster, Merkley knows ice time won’t be dispensed freely by the coaching staff this season.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound forward plans to do everything in his power to prove he belongs.
“I’m hoping to get a good opportunity here,” said Merkley, who had 33 points in 30 games with the Calgary midget Buffaloes last season. “This is such a great place to play, I got a taste of it last year and I feel like I did pretty well.
“I’m excited about this season, and I’m going to do whatever they need me to do to play here.”
Because of his speed and ability, Huska said each time Merkley was on the ice during last spring’s playoffs there was a sense something good might happen. And as much as skill is key to his success, Huska said Merkley also plays the game without fear.
“I see a lot of Taylor Hall in him, almost fearless in how he’ll go to the net, hard,” Huska said. “Not so much in distributing or making plays but when he has the puck, he makes things happen because he does things hard, he’s not afraid to get into that greasy area. If he can continue to play that way he’s going to have a lot of success.”
And while Merkley plans to do whatever it takes to assume a full-time role with the Rockets, there is one aspect of the sport he simply can’t function without—fun.
“I try to have fun playing hockey, it’s really important for me,” said Merkley, the Rockets’ top pick in the 2012 bantam draft. “It is a business I know, I need to be very serious about what I’m doing and I’ll do that. But at the same time I have to have fun.”
Rocket Shots…The Rockets close out their WHL pre-season this weekend with two games—Friday in Vancouver against the Giants, then Saturday at home to the Kamloops Blazers…Nine members of the Rockets are off to NHL training camps this week.