(Photo Credit: Tessa McAndrews)

By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68

There are things for which Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney takes an unnecessary amount of heat (i.e., the 2015 NHL Entry Draft) and others for which he doesn’t get his just due. Sweeney and his staff are proficient in assessing value in the trade market and understanding the importance of organizational assets when it comes time to pull the trigger, hoping to improve the Bruins in the short or long term.

A tougher avenue to pursue and add talent is signing undrafted free agents at the NCAA level. These players have often slipped through the cracks as their development came about later than their drafted counterparts. Sweeney and his scouting staff have found, through the course of Sweeney’s tenure as GM, Karson Kuhlman, Noel Acciari, Jack Ahcan, Marc McLaughlin, Brandon Bussi, and Georgii Merkulov.

(Photo Credit: Ohio State University)

Sweeney signed Merkulov on April 9, 2022, after one season with the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2021-22. While in Columbus, Merkulov totaled 20 goals, seven of which were game-winners, and 14 assists in 34 games for Buckeyes head coach Steve Rohlik. Merkulov’s 20 goals placed him second among Big Ten players while leading the NCAA in scoring among freshmen. In his lone year at the NCAA level, Merkulov was teammates at Ohio State with Boston’s 2020 second-round pick Mason Lohrei. In his only season as Merkulov’s teammate, Lohrei was front and center to Merkulov’s growth and seemed to know in advance of coming attractions that Bruins’ fans were about to see.

After signing his entry-level contract, Merkulov was assigned to Providence of the AHL and inserted into eight games down the stretch for the P-Bruins. In eight regular season games, Merkulov totaled one goal and four assists and immediately impacted the offense for the Ryan Mougenel-led AHL Bruins. After Providence was swept in their best-of-three first-round matchup with the Bridgeport Islanders, it was evident the Bruins organization had found a raw gem that, with the proper development, could be mined into a valuable organizational asset.

As Boston’s training camp broke and Mougenel prepared his roster for the upcoming AHL season, it was clear that Merkulov possessed plentiful offensive skills. Still, work was to be done to round him into a complete 200-foot player. As is commonplace in the AHL, players are cycled through line pairings as coaches and their staff work to allow players to work with other players with skill sets that can enhance and improve their overall game.

Over the first month of this season, Merkulov’s offensive production improved from his eight-game stint at the end of the 2022 season. Producing at a point-plus-per-game pace, Merkulov found his numbers coming mostly in 5-on-5 play as he searched for his defensive stride. His game is predicated on speed, and it is that speed which kills opposing teams developing plays through the back two-thirds of the ice. As he worked on fine-tuning his game, he got the opportunity to return to his natural center position when Vinni Lettieri suffered a lower-body injury during practice after his call-up to Boston on January 31.

Merkulov took hold of the opportunity and ran with it. He found himself penciled in with Justin Brazeau and top prospect Fabian Lysell. Brazeau is having a breakout season of his own, and his physicality, paired with Lysell’s creativeness, has given Merkulov the necessary mix to see his game flourish since the All-Sar break.

With the addition of regular power play time, Merkulov has given Mougenel and the P-Bruins another component to their PP. Providence’s power play numbers over the season’s first four months saw their ranking in the bottom five of AHL teams. Since seeing regular PP minutes, Merkulov and his P-Bruin teammates have risen near the top half of the league. He has become a feared weapon and breathed life into a stagnated PP unit.

Merkulov will have an opportunity to test the growth of his game when Providence moves into the AHL’s postseason in April. The increased physicality, a reliance on teams to play a solid 200-foot game, and the intensity of playoff hockey will be the perfect testing ground to gauge where Merkulov stands in his development. It will also highlight phases of his overall game that need more time and seasoning.

As Merkulov’s first full season in Providence winds down, it is becoming clear that Don Sweeney and his staff appear to have found a gem in the pool of undrafted NCAA free agents. Merkulov continues making strides on the weaker aspects of his game and shows the potential that could see him at the NHL level. In the here and now, Merkulov could not be in a better position to see himself molded into a player in that Bruins style desired by management and coaches. And depending on the need to look into the Providence pipeline, his future at the NHL level could be sooner than ever anticipated.