Bruins’ Merkulov adjusting to pro game

Photo: Tessa McAndrews

📝 by Patrick Williams

At the end of last season, Providence Bruins head coach Ryan Mougenel was not sure what to make of newly arrived forward Georgii Merkulov.

And the always-direct Mougenel will admit that.

“I’m not going to lie,” Mougenel said. “I was a little bit concerned with just how he viewed things, how he viewed the game, and it takes time to develop that relationship.”

For Merkulov, who turned 22 on Oct. 10, the talent was obvious. The native of Ryazan, Russia, played two seasons of junior hockey with Youngstown of the United States Hockey League before heading to Ohio State University, where he amassed 20 goals and 14 assists in only 36 games in 2021-22 to earn spots on both the Big Ten First All-Star Team and the Big Ten All-Rookie Team.

He also earned an entry-level deal from the Boston Bruins. Merkulov wrapped up last season playing eight regular-season games in Providence, along with one postseason appearance.

With an offseason to prepare, the relationship between player and coach is coming along. Merkulov grew up in the Russian hockey system, and for many players that adaptation to the much more straight-ahead AHL game takes time.

“He’s grown tremendously in the short time we’ve had him,” said Mougenel, who is in his second season as Providence’s head coach after seven years as an AHL assistant. “I said to him it would be the same if I went over and played in Russia, just dumping in pucks and trying to chase them down. He’s been valued for different things when he grew up.

Boston management has to like some of the early returns from this season’s crop of prospects in Providence.

Fabian Lysell, a 19-year-old first-round pick from the 2021 NHL Draft, leads the P-Bruins with seven points (two goals, five assists) in four games. Merkulov has scored a team-leading four goals already, and is learning to balance production with a two-way game in Providence.

“When [a player comes] here, we say sometimes that’s not always the play,” Mougenel said. “The play is sometimes to get the puck below the goal line and reward the forecheck, and these are things he hasn’t really heard before, so it’s taking him some time. I think the biggest thing for him was going to NHL camp and seeing how good it was and how hard guys work.

“We’re just real proud of how he’s really bought in, and it shows in practice and now it’s translating to his game. We know he’s going to get points. He’s got a great ability to see plays and make plays, but the stuff away from the puck is going to give him sustainability in the NHL. There’s a time when you have to buy into that, being in your own end and hunting pucks and getting inside guys.

“You know, I’m more proud of that stuff with his game at times than the goals. But [he is a] fantastic kid, and his teammates love having him around. He’s full of life.”