Former San Jose Sharks first-round pick defenseman Ryan Merkley is taking his services overseas at just 23 years old, as the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star has signed him to a one-year contract.
Merkley’s transition to pro hockey has been rocky, to say the least. The Sharks signed him to his entry-level contract just days after the 2018 Draft, but his contract slid for two seasons as he was returned to the OHL’s Guelph Storm for both seasons. Turning pro in 2020, Merkley registered 11 points in 31 games during his first outing with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda, sticking in the minors throughout and looking to round out his game, which had well-documented defensive concerns.
His production never really took off from there, however, limiting his effectiveness in the area the Sharks hoped he could excel. He did get an extended NHL look in 2021-22, though, playing in 39 games with the Sharks but registering just a goal and six points. That could very well be the only NHL ice he ever sees.
Merkley didn’t make San Jose out of camp last season and was assigned to the minors, where he played out the entire 2022-23 season, posting 22 points in 58 games. In January, the Sharks dealt Merkley to the Colorado Avalanche for another disgruntled prospect, Martin Kaut, who also didn’t register much of an impact in the Sharks organization. After Merkley didn’t gain much of a significant role in Colorado’s system with the Eagles in the AHL, they opted not to qualify him in June and let him become an unrestricted free agent.
With no rumored NHL offers, Merkley heads to the KHL, where he could very well play out his pro career, including some other destinations in Europe. Signing in China, Merkley joins a Kunlun team captained by former NHLer Brandon Yip. He’ll need to show significant strides overseas in order to potentially regain an NHL contract some point down the line.