BUFFALO – Brandon Bussi had to navigate through some potholes on his journey to an entry level contract with the Boston Bruins.
A native of Long Island, he committed to St. Lawrence University in 2016 at age 18 while playing for the New Jersey Titans of the NAHL. After moving on to the Amarillo Bulls, his game veered off track.
“Junior hockey was a little tough on me. I bounced around,” said Bussi, 24, who is expected to get the start against the Devils on Monday morning in Boston’s final game at the Prospects Challenge.
“Honestly, I think it was more mental than physical. I had the toolset physically but mentally, early on, leaving home for the first time was rough on me. Some rough games kind of sat in my head a little too much and I harped on the negatives more,” he said.
In 2017-18, Bussi moved to a lower-level league with the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders of the NCDC, playing out of Syosset, Long Island.
“Getting home and being able to resettle was huge for me,” he said.
When he moved up to the USHL in 2018-19, he was ready.
“Going through the adversity toughened me up and then (coach) Mike Hamilton gave me an opportunity in Muskegon as an undrafted age-out who played in the NCDC. It is a good league but it’s a pretty big jump to make to be a starter in the USHL,” said Bussi.
“For him to give me an opportunity, let me take the net and go, ‘It’s your net as long as you want it,’ it was good to have some trust.”
Bussi rewarded that trust by going 33-12-4 with a .915 save percentage for the Lumberjacks and earning a scholarship at Western Michigan.
As a junior last season, Bussi led Western to the NCAA Tournament, posting a 26-12-1 record. At the Northeast Regional in Worcester, he backstopped an overtime victory over Devon Levi and Northeastern.
The 6-foot-5 netminder signed a one-year ELC with Boston on March 30 and finished the season in Providence.
“Once I faced some adversity and learned that I’m at my best when I’m having fun and playing the sport that I love, success started coming and I just kind of rode it out to now,” he said.
Bussi started Friday’s 5-4 win over Ottawa. The Bruins fell behind early and trailed for much of the game, but clawed back to tie the score. As the game was winding down in the third period, Bussi made a terrific pad save and seconds later Johnny Beecher scored the winner at the other end of the ice.
“Obviously as a goalie you don’t want to be giving up four goals. In the first period it really felt like I needed to make a save to kind of settle us down. It didn’t come but sometimes as a goalie those are the kinds of games you like playing,” he said.
“You don’t want to be in them too much, but I felt good the whole time and being able to fight through and make big saves down the stretch in a close game shows a bit of character. It felt good to get the win.”
He’s ready for Boston training camp and for the regular season, which could see him playing some games in Maine as well as in Providence.
“I’m going to play wherever they tell me to play. I’m going to compete hard. I want to have a good training camp to prepare for the season and for the first game, wherever I end up.
“Everything’s kind of a progression. The end goal is everyone wants to play in the NHL, right?”
MEETING THE ‘CHALLENGE’
Since 2015, participating in the Prospects Challenge has been a rite of passage for young players with hopes and dreams of playing for the Boston Bruins, regardless of whether they are first-round picks or free agent signings or if they’ve already logged NHL games.
First-rounder Charlie McAvoy played in it in 2017 a few months after he’d made his NHL debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs the previous season.
This year, undrafted Marc McLaughlin is in Buffalo. He played 11 regular season games and scored three goals in the NHL last spring after signing a free-agent deal out of Boston College.
“I think it’s real good for young players to go through (the Prospects Challenge), it’s part of the process. We talked a little bit about other organizations, some of their guys aren’t playing. It’s more the message than anything at times, right?” said Ryan Mougenel, who is coaching the Bruins here.
“I think that’s an important message that everything you get here, you earn. You have to go through the process. Our process – it could be through Maine or through Providence. That’s how this game works. We want guys always to be the best version of themselves for the Boston Bruins.”
For McLaughlin, who scored a goal and an assist in Friday’s win, the tournament is a step toward “getting his game in the right place” heading into Boston training camp later this week, Mougenel said.
“Marc’s going through that. There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs. This is a good way to get his game consistent and understand what he’s got to do to go into camp and have success.”
With a strong camp, McLaughlin has a chance to earn a bottom-six job to start the season.
Mougenel calls him a student of the game.
“I think that’s real important for a guy like that. He knows those things he’s got to work on and he’s committed to doing it. He’s got an NHL (caliber) shot. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to have to really embrace some penalty killing, especially up there.
“If you’re a right-handed shot and can alleviate some of the stress they put on some of the guys on the kill, that’s one way he can get some minutes up there. That’s what it’s about, finding ways to create minutes for yourself. That’s one of the tools he can put in his toolbox.”
Over the coming months, as Georgii Merkulov works his way through his first full season as a pro, “there’s going to be a lot of teaching moments,” says Mougenel.
Playing at center with Fabian Lysell and Jakub Lauko against the Senators and at wing with Matt Poitras and Lysell against the Penguins, Merkulov was held off the scoresheet.
“His game right now, he’s kind of trying to find what works. I said it before, but he’s a guy who’s spent a career valuing different things – possession, making plays. And sometimes those plays are right in front of you,” said Mougenal after practice on Sunday.
“You don’t have to go back to make it more than what it is. He’s a guy that if there’s a play of front of you, he has to make it. He’s coming back with the puck a little bit too much. It’s to be expected with an offensive player. He really values those things. It’s going to be a process, for sure. As a staff we have to have the patience for it.
“The one goal last night, there was an opportunity to get a puck into an area behind their D, and he comes back, chucks a grenade off the wall to Fabian (Lysell) and it’s in the back of our net… Just get it behind them and go to work.
“He’s going to learn those things. There’s lots of teachable moments for all of us. His hockey IQ is off the chart. He sees plays that I don’t see. He puts pucks in amazing places, even in practice. He’s a really smart kid away from the rink. He’s an impressive kid. I’ve got a lot of time for him.”
MERKULOV: ‘INTERESTING HOCKEY’
Merkulov’s impressions of the Prospects Challenge:
“It’s interesting hockey. So many good young players. It’s fun to play. Obviously it’s different from Providence and AHL. I actually think this hockey is faster than AHL. It’s fun. It’s good to play some games before training camp.”
With Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and others lined up ahead of him on Boston’s depth chart at center, the 21-year-old rookie is realistic about his chances of making it to the NHL this season.
“I have to work on my game in the D zone,” he said. “I’m not in a rush to make the team this year.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Ryan Mougenel: “I come from a background of junior hockey, but I’m a big advocate for college hockey because the runway is so much longer.”