NEWS
02/18/2016 11:59 EST | Updated 02/18/2017 00:12 EST

Injured Coyotes prospect Merkley stays positive despite unlucky season

Nick Merkley is used to adversity.

Years ago, a broken right ankle in his second year of peewee hockey kept him out of the lineup for four months. Now the Kelowna Rockets centre will face a new challenge when he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, suffered in a Feb. 5 game against Spokane.

The Rockets announced on Tuesday night that the 18-year-old would miss the remainder of the Western Hockey League regular season and playoffs with the injury.

"I think you have to just stay positive through it all and just kind of get better and just stay as positive as you can," said Merkley in a phone interview on Wednesday. "It's something you can't control and you just have to face it full on and try and just strengthen it and do whatever you're told and work as hard as you can to get back in the game."

Merkley excelled in his draft season last year with Kelowna, scoring 20 goals and 70 assists in 72 games — good for sixth in WHL scoring.

The Calgary native's impressive season caught the eye of the Arizona Coyotes, who drafted him with the 30th overall pick at the 2015 NHL draft.

This season hasn't worked out quite as well.

A collarbone injury kept him out of the Kelowna lineup early in the year. Merkley then missed a few weeks in December while trying out for Canada's world junior team, where he was one of the final cuts.

The five-foot-10, 185 pounder still thought his WHL season was a good one despite all the setbacks.

"I wanted to produce more than I did last year but I thought I played well," Merkley said. "I wanted to finish it (the season) on a strong note and get into playoffs. Usually I take a step up in playoffs, so I was hoping to do that again this year, but it's not going to happen so I just have to move on now."

The Rockets are trying to get back to the Memorial Cup again this year after falling in the final to the Oshawa Generals last spring.

Despite losing names such as Leon Draisaitl, Josh Morrissey and Madison Bowey to the NHL and AHL, the team has still thrived.  With just over a month to go in the regular season, Kelowna has the best record in the WHL at 40-15-3.

With Merkley now out of the lineup, Rockets head coach Brad Ralph says it's an opportunity for other players, such as veteran forward Tyson Baillie, to step up.

Baillie leads Kelowna in scoring with 32 goals and 48 assists. Ralph says that Baillie's confidence and experience have been key attributes to his on-ice success this season.

"He knows where to go on the ice, he knows what to do with the puck when he gets it and he believes in himself," said Ralph. "He believes in his team and he's been a guy that’s been consistent for us all year."

Merkley's road to recovery begins next week with surgery in Arizona with the Coyotes medical staff. He's heard that the recovery will take five to six months but is hopeful to be ready for Coyotes training camp in the fall.

For now, Merkley is focused on the surgery followed by a couple weeks of rehab before returning to Kelowna, where he plans on spending a long playoff run with teammates.

"I think we can beat anyone at this point," said Merkley. "I think it's going to be tough to get through our division but once we do that I think we'll be OK. We definitely got a lot of firepower up front still and a really tight room again this year."

Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press