It is finally that time for the Boston Bruins organization. Longtime centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci will not return for another season, and the moment is here when the Bruins have to find a way to replace their top two centers in one off-season. One candidate appears to be forward Pavel Zacha, who played on the wing last season primarily with fellow Czechians Krejci and David Pastrnak. But the 26-year-old natural center is the prime candidate to take a top-six center spot after having a career year in 2022-23 with 58 points. Zacha also possesses the 200-foot game that Bergeron so brilliantly displayed in his 19-year career.
The second center spot in the top six is a little less clear. 32-year-old veteran center Charlie Coyle is certainly an option. Coyle has been a steady performer for Boston the last two seasons with 89 points. The Weymouth, Massachusetts native is also very durable, having played all 164 games during that timeframe. Coyle is also a good defensive center who possesses excellent puck-possession skills. The issue is in the offensive production. Coyle has totaled over 50 points in a season just once (2016-17) and is not an ideal playmaker.
The lack of a legitimate number-one center could be the eventual downfall for the Bruins, and the focus will be on the team generating consistent offense. There is also a lack of depth at the position as injuries mount during the season. Boston will need other options at center if they want to remain a contender in the Eastern Conference.
One candidate for a center spot coming out of September’s training camp could be 22-year-old forward Georgii Merkulov. The Ryazan, Russia native, was signed by Boston after his freshman season at Ohio State University, where he registered 20 goals and 14 assists in 36 games. The undrafted center totaled five points in eight games with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League at the end of the 2021-22 season. Then last season, Merkulov sparkled with 24 goals and 31 assists in 67 games. For context, Bergeron had 61 points in 68 games in his only season at Providence. Merkulov is now in the running for the top prospect in the Bruins system.
With training camp a little over a month away, Merkulov will have every opportunity to find a spot on the Boston Bruins roster right out of camp. Neely signed forward Morgan Geekie can play center, as can Trent Frederic, who signed a new two-year deal recently. Former first-round draft pick Johnny Beecher could also be contending for a bottom-six center slot this season.
But out of all of those options, Merkulov has the best offensive skill set, which could translate into the 5-foot-11, 185-pound rookie being a legitimate top-six center in the NHL. Merkulov’s chances will depend on his 200-foot game and whether he can handle the physical of the NHL game. But the timing could be right for Georgii Merkulov to move from a center of the future to a center of the present.