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Nick Merkley on the mental battle between the NHL and AHL

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WELCOME HOSTMATE KAT PITRE! KAT CURRENTLY COVERING THE SAN JOSE SHARKS ON FEAR THE FIN AND COUNTERING THE THIS IS HOCKEY CULTURE PODCAST.

Nick Merkley knows how to work hard.

On or off the ice, in the weight room or behind the net, his work ethic is the first thing you’ll notice about the 24-year-old forward. Only the best of the best are guaranteed a spot in the NHL, and Nick Merkley has always known that he belonged there.

“When the teacher asks you what you want to be when you’re older, I always wrote down, ‘I want to be an NHL player.’ That was my goal from the start,” said Merkley.

Imagining as a kid putting on an NHL jersey and stepping on the ice in the top hockey league in the world is the definition of dreaming big, but that didn’t stop Nick Merkley from pursuing his dream, even when he was admonished to pursue one to think Plan B: “If you have a backup plan, you are not fully committed to your primary goal. I think you’re wasting some energy just thinking about this backup plan.”

Merkley didn’t have to waste his time worrying about a backup plan, as he was drafted 30th overall to the Arizona Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in the first round. The reason for this is obvious – he’s flexible and adaptable, can play at both center and right wing positions, and he has a “hockey IQ” that’s immediately apparent in how he plays the game with Vor – and manages back check.

A classic playmaker, Merkley is best known for his attention to detail, turnover capitalization, puck management and play anticipation. Because of this, Merkley made his NHL debut in the 2017-18 season, despite playing just one game for the Coyotes and then spending the rest of the season with their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners.

From there, Merkley spent the next few seasons rotating between the NHL and AHL within the Coyotes organization before landing in the blockbuster trade with the New Jersey Devils, whom Taylor Hall (and Blake Speers) named in 2019 Arizona Coyotes sent.

Once with New Jersey, Merkley played four games in the NHL for the Devils and returned to the AHL again to play the remainder of the 2019-20 season for the Binghamton Devils.

Merkley’s journey to the NHL hit a snag when the 2020-21 season was put on hiatus amid the looming COVID-19 pandemic. Merkley, along with most players, spent most of the shutdown training and doing what he could to stay conditioned with limited ice time available. But nothing prepares a player for the grueling NHL (or AHL) season better than actually spending time at an ice rink.

When offered the opportunity to be loaned out by the Devils to Finnish Liiga’s Porin Assat, Merkley jumped at it. Having never played in Europe before, he didn’t speak a bit of Finnish, but he knew it would be a good experience that would ultimately benefit his career and development.

The Calgary native was the only North American on the team, which led to some interesting (and funny) anecdotes about how he and the other non-Finnish speaking players knew what was going on.

“The trainer could hardly speak any English. [And], we also had about six Swedish boys. So when he’s explaining the exercises or talking about anything, five players talk to each person who doesn’t know what he’s saying. So it’s like he’s talking and then five guys are talking at the same time,” laughed Merkley, recalling the atmosphere in the Porin dressing room.

You may be wondering if he picked up Finnish while he was with Assat.

“I definitely don’t speak Finnish. And apparently it’s one of the hardest languages ​​to learn!’ said Merkley.

(Just looking at some of the Finnish surnames on the back of shirts, I believe it).

Merkley spent 19 games in the Liiga, culminating in four goals and nine assists, for a total of 13 points. It was a nice start to the remainder of the year as Merkley played his longest streak in the NHL to date, playing 27 games.

Ahead of the 2021-22 season, the San Jose Sharks traded pending RFA Christian Jaros to the Devils for pending RFA Merkley.

Like any player traded to a new team, Merkley had expectations of what the Sharks’ organization would be like.

“I was excited to come here,” Merkley said. “I knew they had a really good team at the top and obviously I wanted a good chance at camp. I’ve played for New Jersey and the NHL for most of the last year, so I was hoping to get a chance at the top here.”

Despite a strong training camp, Merkley didn’t make the Sharks roster on opening night, instead starting the season with the San Jose Barracuda. Since then, Merkley has appeared in nine games for the Sharks, recording a goal and two assists in total.

With the reintroduction of the Taxi Squad and the proximity of the Barracuda and Sharks, players can more easily switch between the two leagues.

But it’s not easy constantly moving back and forth between the AHL and NHL, physically or mentally, and there are major differences between the two leagues. Regardless of whether you think the AHL is a standalone league where wins are everything, or that the partner’s purpose is just to develop players for the NHL, there’s no question that if you’re from dreaming of the big leagues, being sent down can hurt.

“It can definitely be a mental battle at times. If you think you’re doing well, and then you get sent down and you kind of wonder why — it’s a lot more mental than just the physical one on the ice, because you want to do well, and you want to be up there as often as possible ‘ Merkley said.

As for the physical side of the game, the NHL is definitely at a different pace.

“All the players around you are better. And they are in the right place at the right time. I think it’s easier that way where you can just read the guys better and the guys are checking the right way and doing all the little things. It almost helps your game too.”

Also, there is the difference in the journey; Once you fly in a private jet in the NHL, it’s difficult to return to Southwest Airlines (San Jose Barracuda’s airline of choice). Merkley laughs, “We’ve got a couple of guys faking sleep, so nobody’s sitting next to him and stuff.”

There is another big difference between AHL and NHL competition. It’s a much more unified front for the NHL, but it can be difficult to shake the internal competitive spirit in the AHL locker room when an entire roster is fighting for just a few roster spots above.

“There’s internal competition and you want to be the next guy that gets called up and all of that, you’re definitely trying to do that job. So there’s competition between the guys, but you have to put that aside,” Merkley shared. “Everybody plays better when they try to put that aside and just play for the team and win.”

The San Jose Barracuda hasn’t won much this season, but Nick Merkley isn’t letting that stop him knowing he has what it takes to make it to the NHL. Being a professional hockey player is hard enough, but at the AHL level, every game is like an interview for an NHL gig.

But Merkley has a healthy perspective for dealing with that pressure.

“It’s mostly about staying in the same mindset, enjoying the game and trying to do what you used to do as a kid and have fun,” he said. “Then you play your best ice hockey – if you enjoy it. So I think the biggest thing is to just try and start over again and enjoy every day at the rink and then other things will happen when they come.

Barracuda action

The San Jose Barracuda sit bottom of the AHL standings and are on a five-game losing streak. The San Jose Sharks’ additions of Jasper Weatherby, Adam Raska and Ryan Merkley will hopefully revive the Barracuda after the All-Star hiatus, along with Nick Merkley being placed back at his more regular wing position.

On January 31, the Barracuda met Ontario Reign in a frustrating 8-5 loss.

The losing bug persisted in early February as the last two games also ended in losses. On February 2, the first of back-to-back games against the Henderson Silver Knights ended in a 5-3 loss. On February 3, the last game before the All-Star break, there was a 6-3 loss.

The Barracuda went into the break with a 14-24-1 record. They next play in San Diego on February 11th.

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