Heading into this season, Kelowna Rockets centre Nick Merkley was more or less an afterthought in the conversation of the top 2012 bantam prospects making the jump to the Western Hockey League. He was coming off an impressive season with the Calgary Buffaloes in the AMHL, where he scored 14 goals and 33 points in 31 games, but he was being overshadowed by the Seattle Thunderbirds’ Mathew Barzal and Prince George Cougars’ Jansen Harkins, who went first and second overall in the draft respectively.
Yet roughly at the 50-game mark, Merkley leads all 2012 bantam prospects on the stats sheet with 12 goals and 34 points in 43 games. The 16-year-old couldn’t have predicted to score at this high of a pace in the summer, but he did expect to make an impact in the scoring department right off the hop.
“When I saw the speed and skill last year when I played seven playoff games with the Rockets, I thought then that I was ready to have a pretty good rookie year this season, but I didn’t know how many points I’d get,” says Merkley, who was selected ninth overall by Kelowna in 2012. “And this year the bounces have been going my way and the work I put in the off-season has been paying off.”
Merkley is fortunate to be on a star-studded team as the 40-7-0-2 Rockets. Having talented linemates beside him is beneficial, but it also means ice time, especially on the power play, is harder to come by.
"I think it's good to start out on a good team because I get to learn from a lot of talented players," says Merkley. "They know how to win and that teaches me the ins and outs on what to do in games."
The Calgary, Alta., native gives some of the credit for his instant success to his eldest brother Jay Merkley, who plays for the Swift Current Broncos, and teammate Myles Bell. His brother of course has helped him along the way since his early minor hockey days while Bell has taken him under his wing in Kelowna.
“Jay helped me know what to expect as a rookie,” he says. “He had a bit of a tough time in Lethbridge (with the Hurricanes), but he learned a lot and told me some of the things on what to expect. He would tell me little tips for on-ice stuff and off-ice stuff, too. It’s definitely nice to have a brother who has went through it before and I still talk to him a lot.
“Myles has really showed me the ropes this year. He’s showed me tips and just has taken me under his winger as a rookie. It’s cool to have someone like him to lean on for advice since he’s been drafted (sixth round of the New Jersey Devils in 2013) and has had a lot of success in this league.”
The 5-foot-10, 176-pound Merkley has a little extra motivation to find the back of the net throughout the latter half of the year because he hopes to edge his friend Barzal, who’s only one-point back of him and has played five less games, as the top 2012 bantam draft scorer.
“We’re good buddies and it has been a good battle between us,” says Merkley. “It kind of pushes me to want to score more because I want to stay ahead of him in points. It’s good extra motivation to battle hard out there.”
Ahead of possible scoring accolades, Merkley hopes to help the first-place Rockets capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup and advance to the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup in London, Ont.
“It would be an amazing experience to win a championship, especially as a rookie,” says Merkley. “I’ve never played on a team as good as this – it’s a really fun experience. And that’s my main goal here is just to help my team win and hopefully score some important goals in the playoffs.”
Although Merkley has only got his feet wet in his major junior career thus far, it seems he has the makings of a draft day steal. This is by no means news to Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton. He felt back when he drafted him that he snagged a 1997-born gem.
“I’m not surprised at all (on Merkley’s strong rookie season) – we knew the type of player we were getting when we drafted him,” said Hamilton in an interview with BTN in November. “We were very happy when he we saw he was still available at Nine. Our scouts watched him a lot when he was in Calgary and they were very high on him.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen