Nick Merkley would rather be skating on an outdoor rink this time of year.
Unfortunately for him, Arizona is far from Alberta.
Merkley is still finding plenty of ice time. The Tucson Roadrunners’ leading scorer has emerged as one of the top prospects in the Arizona Coyotes organization.
The Coyotes invested big in Merkley when they picked him late in the first round of the 2015 NHL draft. Merkley’s swift progression in Tucson means he’ll likely be in the NHL sooner rather than later. His Roadrunners will take on the Ontario Reign in a two-game series starting Friday night at Tucson Arena.
“He’s a guy who tries to do things right,” Roadrunners coach Mike Van Ryn said. “He’s working on the forecheck, he tries to create turnovers, he tries to play at the caliber we want him to play. He’s been great for us and he’s improving.”
The 20-year-old Merkley, along with fellow 2015 first-round draft pick Dylan Strome, has been a catalyst for the Roadrunners’ front line.
Merkley’s 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) are tied with Strome for the team lead, though Merkley has played five more games with Tucson this season.
“I think that we push each other and we obviously want to do both do good,” Strome said. “We want to win some games, have some fun and show them that that’s how we want to be called up.”
Merkley, like Strome, was given a brief taste of the NHL when he was recalled for one game last month. Merkley only saw a couple minutes of action with the Coyotes, but it was enough to give him a taste of the big time.
“It was a pretty surreal moment,” Merkley said. “It’s what you dream of your whole life. I know what it takes to get to that level and stick there. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
Merkley grew up around hockey in Calgary and was intent on playing the sport professionally as soon as he picked up a stick.
Merkley and his older brother Jay played at an outdoor rink right by their home. By age 16, Merkley was playing in the Western Hockey League, Canada’s premier junior hockey league.
Merkley followed the hometown Calgary Flames closely growing up, including their 2004 Stanley Cup Finals run. When the Coyotes drafted the then-18 year old in the 2015 draft, Merkley saw it as the launch pad of his own pro hockey dreams.
“You kind of realize it’s just the start of something but just being there and finally getting picked, it was a great moment for sure,” Merkley said.
Merkley needed little time to adjust to the AHL level of play. Within his first few weeks with the team, he established himself as one of the team’s most efficient offensive threats. His 23.8 shooting percentage is far and away tops on the team.
“I just need to keep pushing and doing what I’m doing down here and keep working,” Merkley said. “Hopefully get called up there at some point. I just need to stay down here and win games down here.”