Wild times for Hitmen star

CAMERON MAXWELL -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 5:21 PM ET

When the NHL held its 2005 entry draft in July, the phone never rang for Calgary Hitmen centreman Riley Merkley.

But bitter disappointment for the 18-year-old from Blackie has been replaced by a wide grin these days after he was invited to the Minnesota Wild training camp.

Merkley is set to depart today for the 2005 NHL Centre I.C.E. Prospects Tournament, which goes from Tuesday-Friday in Traverse City, Mich., and he's looking forward to the challenge.

"I've had a good camp here and hopefully it continues on. I know the level there is a lot higher, so hopefully when I come back it's going to bring it down a notch and I'll be really up-tempo because the tempo's going to be huge when I go to Minnesota," said Merkley.

He said the disappointment of draft day didn't last long as the Wild got in touch with him shortly thereafter.

"A couple of days after the draft, their assistant GM phoned me and said they want me to come to camp but then I got a couple more invites, too," said Merkley, adding Florida and Atlanta also wanted him to attend their camps.

"It's pretty exciting. It's another opportunity for me and it takes my mind off the draft. I'll just go forward with this and hopefully something works out."

Merkley, who scored 15 goals and put up 27 points last season, is one of the veterans in the Hitmen lineup. He's set the bar high for himself, hoping to pot 25 to 30 goals.

"I hope so. That's a great goal to have but I'll focus on all aspects of the game and hopefully it'll be a breakout season for me and I'll open some eyes," Merkley said.

"I want to be able to do everything Kelly Kisio asks of me. We've got a young set of forwards, so it's going to be a big year for me."

Don't be surprised if he gets his fair share of goals.

Merkley has great hands int ight and a few of his tallies last season were of the highlight-reel variety.

For much of 2004-05, his line went up against the opposing squad's No. 1 line and Merkley wound up with a plus/minus of -1, which isn't too bad.

Merkley said he added 15 pounds to his 6-ft. 3-in. frame, bringing him up to 190 lb., but reckons he's lost some of it during the intense Hitmen training camp practices.

The extra weight was much needed and he feels great on the ice.

"I feel a lot stronger, especially the legs. I feel a little quicker out there," he said.

But Merkley's always striving to improve, especially in the defensive zone.

"You always want to get stronger and I'd like to improve in the defensive end. That's something you've always go to be working on -- you don't want to get scored on out there," he said. Then the offence will come. With guys like Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd likely gone, it's up to guys like me and Ryan White and Brodie Dupont to step up."

The Hitmen open the pre-season in Airdrie on Tuesday against the Red Deer Rebels.


Videos

Photos