(Photo Credit: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

By: Jason Cooke | Follow me on Twitter / X @cookejournalism

For the entirety of the 2023-24 season, Boston Bruins fans urged for the call-up of highly touted prospect Georgii Merkulov. After a hot start with the Providence Bruins, posting a line of 14-16-30 through 31 games with Boston’s American Hockey League affiliate, the 23-year-old received the nod to the big club last week. Merkulov made his National Hockey League debut on Saturday in a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils before suiting up for his second game on Sunday. While he has yet to record his first NHL point, Merkulov has stood out in his first two games with the Black and Gold.

Merkulov, known for his lightning-quick release and raw offensive skill, hasn’t found the back of the net thus far. However, that doesn’t mean Boston’s lineup hasn’t felt his presence. In his NHL debut on Saturday, Merkulov logged 15:08 of ice time, anchoring a third-line role with James van Riemsdyk and Trent Frederic. Merkulov played a conservative yet effective game, finding the right spots and playing responsibly in his defensive zone. He had a pair of opportunities where he shot the puck, but New Jersey defenders ultimately deflected both chances. The speed of the NHL is vastly quicker than the AHL, and Merkulov will have to adapt to less time and space between him and the opposing defender.

“He did a lot of good things,” said head coach Jim Montgomery after his debut. “I didn’t play him down the stretch because we want to close out the game. As soon as we closed it out, I put him back out there. He played a good game.”

While protecting a two-goal lead in the third period, Montgomery elected to swap Merkulov for Danton Heinen on the third line until Kevin Shattenkirk provided the Bruins with a three-goal lead late in the period. In Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Merkulov experienced a similar treatment. He logged just 8:33 of ice time, a significant reduction from his debut. Despite his limited role, Merkulov made the most of his opportunity, nearly scoring his first NHL goal on a wrist shot off the pipe.

Merkulov increased his assertiveness from a more passive style of play on Saturday, including a great play midway through the second period where his forecheck resulted in a scoring opportunity for Oskar Steen. If Merkulov hopes to be a mainstay in Montgomery’s lineup, he’ll need to continue to make plays like these to establish his role, especially with the return of Matt Poitras from the World Juniors. Standing at 5’11” and 176 pounds, Merkulov isn’t the biggest player on the ice but has shown his ability to be physical when necessary.

It doesn’t look like Merkulov’s usage will return to the 15-minute mark in Tuesday’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, as Montgomery announced his decision to slot him into a fourth-line role with Jakub Lauko and Steen, reported by NESN’s Adam Pellerin. Nevertheless, Merkulov will have to earn his keeps at the NHL level, grinding out ice time in the bottom six until a potential promotion to the top line. A return to Providence shortly can’t be ruled out either when Poitras returns, which would not serve as a punishment for Merkulov but rather another opportunity to work on his game until another NHL opportunity presents itself. For Merkulov, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.