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Forgotten man: Merkley hoping for chance to make impact on Coyotes

(Kate Dibildeaux / Tucson Roadrunners)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nick Merkley arrived in the Valley around 3 p.m. on Friday. By Saturday afternoon, he was back in his comfort zone, taking care of one of his greatest responsibilities: making Dylan Strome dinner.

“He said he wasn’t cooking much when I was down in Tucson,” said Merkley, who was recalled from the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League on Friday. “We made some pasta [Satur]day. Gluten free penne with marinara. Well, I made it. He tries to.”

Merkley doesn’t know how many more meals he’ll get to prepare, but he’ll gladly take that tradeoff if it means he can stick with the Coyotes for a while.

“I don’t mind,” he said. “Kyle Capobianco taught me the recipe. I can teach Stromer.”

Merkley wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He hasn’t played in a week due to a two-game suspension earned for a high-sticking infraction in a game at Stockton on Dec. 9.

The Coyotes want him to practice a couple times, but coach Rick Tocchet expects him to play, perhaps as soon as Tuesday against the Florida Panthers.

“We’re looking for sticky guys; guys who can win puck battles and go to the net,” Tocchet said. “He fits the bill for us.”

Merkley thinks so, too.

“I can do all those things, being hard on pucks and hounding pucks and creating turnovers and trying to create some havoc out there and finishing checks when I need to,” he said. “Hopefully I can bring that vision I brought down there in Tucson, too.”

In 20 games with Tucson this season, Merkley has 12 goals and 24 points, good for second on the team behind Strome’s 26 points in 15 games.

Merkley played primarily on a line with Strome and Lawson Crouse while the three were all in Tucson.

“I had a lot of good chemistry with Dylan, when he was there, and Crouse,” he said. “I thought our line worked really well together.”

The Coyotes selected Merkley with the first-round pick (No. 30) they acquired from Chicago (along with defenseman Klas Dahlbeck) for center Antoine Vermette at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. He finished sixth in WHL scoring during the 2014-15 season with 20 goals and 90 points for Kelowna.

Injuries have slowed his development, however, making him feel like the forgotten man in the Coyotes’ pipeline of prospects. Two seasons ago, the 2015 first-round pick (30th overall) suffered a collarbone injury on a hit by Los Angeles Kings defenseman Kurtis MacDermid early in a rookie game.

In February 2016, Merkley was finishing a check against Spokane in the Western Hockey League when his skate caught in the ice and his knee twisted. Three days later, an MRI revealed a completely torn ACL, ending his season with Kelowna and keeping him out of 2016 Coyotes training camp. He had 48 points in 43 games before the knee injury.

“He’s missed a lot of hockey. He’s missed a lot of development time but the coaching staff down there is doing an outstanding job with him,” Coyotes assistant general manager and Tucson Roadrunners GM Steve Sullivan said. “He’s becoming the player that we drafted, a dog on a bone. He’s a gritty, skilled type player and we’re seeing it right now on a consistent basis.”

Merkley said simply logging hours and games in the pro ranks has helped his confidence and development after the injuries.

“It gives you a bit more motivation every time you’re out there,” he said. “Any time I’m healthy I appreciate it.

“I built that confidence from the start of the season and I just kept it rolling. Hopefully, I’ll get a couple practices in here and see what happens. I’ll just try and put my best foot forward.”

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