Bruins Prospect Merkulov Must Improve Defensively to Make NHL

In April, the Boston Bruins signed a skilled, hard-working forward prospect in Georgii Merkulov. The 5-foot-11 winger would finish off a strong rookie campaign with the Ohio State Buckeyes, scoring 20 goals and 34 points in 36 games before signing an entry-level deal with the Bruins. Prior to his time with Ohio State, the Russian-born forward would score 20 goals and 77 points in 74 USHL games with the Youngstown Phantoms; in general, he’s been no stranger to producing offense at every stop he’s had in his career. This also seemed to be the case through his first eight games in the AHL, scoring one goal and five points in that time.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney
Bruins general Manager, Don Sweeney signed Georgii Merkulov to an entry-level contract back in April. (Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki)

The Bruins could certainly use an infusion of skill added to their lineup in the near future, and Merkulov has the potential to contribute in that regard. It won’t be an easy path for Merkulov, but the path to being a successful player at the professional level is never easy. Skill can only get a player so far and many superbly skilled players never carve out a career at the NHL level due simply to the lack of a work ethic.

Though Merkulov is a tremendously gifted and skilled player, it’s his willingness to put in work and improve on his deficiencies that could really aid him in eventually making it to the NHL. This extends far beyond just hockey, too, as his work to learn the English language when moving from Ryazan, Russia to the United States is a testament to his commitment to being in the NHL in and of itself.

Amalie Benjamin would detail this work in a feature on Merkulov, stating that he challenged himself to learn 50 new English words daily. He would liken this experience to that of being a baby; unable to articulate his thoughts to others and limited to simply listening. As he improved, though, he was able to express himself even if his pronunciations still weren’t good enough for those around him to fully understand what he was saying. Still, the point for him was to continue working and improving to better himself and his chances of making the NHL.

Merkulov Needs to Round Out His Game To Make the NHL

Merkulov’s ability in the offensive zone is unquestioned. His work ethic also cannot be disputed. These two traits alone could facilitate an NHL opportunity one day. What does leave room for improvement, however, is his work in the defensive zone. This has been a common trend for him since he was a teenager, and it’s something that has been preached to him every step of the way.

“That’s been an issue since I was like 13 years old,” Merkulov said. “I’ve been working on that in school and juniors. Even when I played for Youngstown (of the United States Hockey League) … my coach was telling me, that scouts always ask about you, but they don’t like how you play in [the] ‘D’ zone. So you’ve got to be better and you will have success. … They always say details, small details, that I get distracted or I always cheat. I want to get the puck and go [on] offense as quick as possible, and sometimes I force it. So I think that’s the biggest issue.”

When speaking about Merkulov, Bruins player development coordinator Adam McQuaid echoed Merkulov’s own thoughts, mentioning that working on the defensive side of his game is a daily process.

“He’s playing the middle of the ice,” McQuaid said. “You know, especially here, you have to be good in your own end to play the middle of the ice and play that 200-foot game. So those will be things that the staff here will be working with him moving forward. It’s nice that he recognizes it himself. He wants to work at it. Super skilled. Pretty competitive. We had him in Providence at the end of the year. Fairly seamless transition. Obviously, still working on details in that part of his game, for sure. But the skill level is there. Things that you can’t teach. That’s what excites us about him.”

Related: 4 Bruins Prospects Who Must Have an Impact in 3 Years

Though Merkulov will likely spend the 2022-23 season in the AHL for its entirety, a call-up at some point isn’t exactly out of the question either. Injuries occur – the Bruins can speak to this in spades, and emergency call-ups are always possible. Additionally, Merkulov could find himself playing himself into an NHL audition if he can continue to work on his defensive game and maintain his offensive output. Again, it’s very unlikely that he finds himself playing at all in the NHL this season, let alone playing with the Boston Bruins regularly; this isn’t a negative though as a full season of AHL development could be very beneficial for him.

The Bruins are at a crossroads when it comes to their contention window; while there’s a chance the Bruins could push all their chips in and go all-in for one more Stanley Cup run this season, anything beyond this year seems more likely to include a retool than legitimate contention. Having skilled players like Merkulov, Mason Lohrei, Johnny Beecher, and others lined up and potentially able to step in to accelerate that retool is something that should get Bruins fans excited, regardless of the role he ends up playing with the team one day. The team’s prospect pool may not be the strongest on paper, but there are some players that could make a difference one day.

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