BUFFALO — Like any kid in his first NHL training camp, whether he’s Canadian or American or Russian or from parts unknown, Georgii Merkulov would like to go directly into big league hockey.
Merkulov, 21, left his home outside Moscow three years ago, his eye fixed on the NHL, and signed as with the Bruins as a free agent this spring after a season at Division 1 Ohio State. His one year with the Buckeyes, combined with two seasons at USHL Youngstown, convinced him it was time to turn pro.
“I came to the US to play in the NHL — not to get educated,” Merkulov noted following the club’s noon workout here on Sunday. “I wanted to sign a deal. So as soon I got an offer, I didn’t think once about staying in school.”
League economics also factored into Merkulov’s decision-making. He didn’t need an MBA or Ouija board to know the NHL salary cap increased only $1 million from last season, that nearly half the league was tight against the $82.5 million figure. The player supply may be endless, but the cap, and 2022 market forces have siphoned pressure off the demand side.
“If you look around the league, there’s so many good players right now struggling to sign a deal,” mused Merkulov. “If you get a chance, you have to take it. You can’t decline the deal.”
His three-year contact guarantees that Merkulov will collect just over $500,000 through the 2024-25 season. A two-way deal, it could be worth more than $1 million a season if he were to make the varsity from the start.
But no one here, including Merkulov himself, expects he’ll be on the Boston roster when the season opens Oct. 12 in Washington. Which, as far as Merkulov is concerned, is just fine.
“You know, I prefer to play the middle of the ice — kind of like [David] Krejci and [Patrice] Bergeron and [Charlie] Coyle,” he said. “The team is packed this year. So I would love to be in Boston, but I understand the team is probably in the running for a Cup this year.”
Merkulov also knows his game needs some refining to make the jump to the next level. Bergeron, Krejci, and Coyle base their success around their ability to play a 200-foot game. The 5-foot-10-inch Merkulov is done growing, but he’ll need to add a few feet to the length of his game to make him a reliable, effective contributor in all three zones.
“There’s a lot of things,” Merkulov said. “I’ve talked to the coaches and managers. I have to work on my game in the D-zone, and all that stuff. So I’m not in a rush to make the team this year. Obviously, yeah, I would love to, but … if I spend some time in Boston this year, I’ll be thrilled.”
Merkulov joined coach Ryan Mougenel’s AHL WannaB squad immediately after agreeing to contract terms with Bruins general manager Don Sweeney last spring. He suited up for eight games in the regular season, posted a modest 1-4—5 line, and impressed Mougenel with his overall acumen.
“A smart kid, his hockey IQ is off the charts, said Mougenel, whose group of rookies, Merkulov included, will take on the Devils’ rookies here Monday morning (puck drop, 10 a.m.) to wrap up the Prospects Challenge.
The next step, noted Mougenel, will be for Merkulov to apply his smarts to North American pro hockey. Savvy European players, particularly those who value puck possession the way Merkulov does, often overlook the simple, straight-line game North American kids have played since their mighty mite days.
“His game right now … he’s trying to find what works,” said Mougenel. “He’s a guy who’s spent his career valuing [puck] possession, making plays … and sometimes those plays are right in front of you, and you don’t have to go back and make it more [complex] than what it is. He’s coming back with the puck a little too much, and that’s to be expected for an offensive player. He really values those things, and now it’s about getting it all to translate to the pro game.”
Brandon Bussi next up in net
Brandon Bussi, who turned back 18 shots vs. Ottawa in a 5-4 win on Friday, is expected to start in net vs. the Devils. Mougenel did not rule out Reid Dyck, in net Saturday in a 6-4 loss to the Penguins, getting at least a period of work vs. New Jersey … .Sweeney, whose varsity squad will go through its paces for the first time Thursday in Brighton, will meet with the small Boston media contingent prior to Monday’s game … Merkulov’s parents, Olga and Gennadiy, remain in Russia. Merkulov said it’s written into his contract that the Bruins will pay for them to fly to North America and see him play a “couple of games” when he makes the varsity roster. Merkulov’s dad was his first coach, ages 3-5, in Ryazan, some two hours southeast of Moscow.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.