When Dmitri Samorukov joined the OHL’s Guelph Storm after going second overall in the CHL Import Draft, that billing came with lofty expectations that only added to the overwhelming challenges that already accompany leaving your country at 17-years-old to play hockey halfway across the globe.
Just take into account some of the obstacles that lay in Samorukov’s path. He had to leave his home, his family and all his friends to come to a country where he spoke, at best, 15 words of English. All the while, Samorukov has to play an entirely different style of hockey and take on the responsibility of holding down a top pair on one of the league’s worst teams.
It’s no surprise then that Samorukov struggled to find his groove until about mid-season.
The honest, affable Russian defender admitted to Oilers Nation “It was hard because when you come here without [speaking the] language, it’s… really hard. It’s different hockey. They play more physical — it’s all different”. Samorukov continued “I needed a couple of months for it to feel normal for me. First two months, I was like, oh my god, terrible.”
The scouting community tends to agree. In the www.Hockey-Prospect.com assessment of Samorukov for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, there’s a chorus of scouts echoing similar statements. One even went to describe Samorukov as “un-draftable”.
As the losses mounted, Samorukov reveals how difficult it was to find his game with everything around him falling apart. The Storm were out of the playoffs by December, and could never claw their way back. They finished fifth in their division.
“I just tried to play my game,” Samorukov told Oilers Nation. “I don’t like to lose games. I tried to think about what I needed to do to be better for the team. It was really hard for me, and the team too. I just tried to work on my game, and watch a lot of my games [on video] thinking about what I need to do.”
You’d never guess it by looking at Samorukov’s boxcars, but he shored things defensively by about December. By season’s end, Samorukov was in full stride and providing value at both ends of the rink. While he might have run out of time to show it in Guelph, his performance with Russian at the IIHF Under-18 tournament stands as a testament to the strides Samorukov made in a season that was challenging both on and off the ice.
For the second straight season, Samorukov had five points at the U18 tournament. This year, Samorukov was in a leadership role, wearing an ‘A’. It’s those performances that make Samorukov worth the price of admission in spite of a dodgy first season in Ontario.
The bashful Russian was far more enthusiastic about how he played for his country, too. “I thought I improved for my national team,” Samorukov told Oilers Nation “I had a [really] good tournament”.
Samorukov is now focused on the next step, as he graduates from the U18 tournaments to the annual winter showcase of the World Junior Hockey Championships.
“I’ve worked for this. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play for their national team? I will try 100 percent. It would be a good opportunity for me, so we’ll see”.
Playing in the world juniors would be a great experience for Samorukov. The only thing that could trump it would be his NHL debut. He’s making progress. The Edmonton Oilers took Samorukov in the third-round, 84th overall last June, and signed him to an entry-level contract mere days ago.
It’s not that often that third-round picks get an entry-level contract their first summer within an NHL system. The experience isn’t lost on Samorukov, who could hardly contain himself when reflecting on the last three months.
“It was really exciting for me; just an unbelievable day,” Samorukov said through a beaming smile. “A dream come true. Unbelievable feeling, when you think Edmonton Oilers [have signed] you to a contract. It’s good for me; a good opportunity. Now I know I need to be better every day to be with Edmonton.”
“What I need to do is [stick to] hard work. It’s always what you need to do at my age, so I’ll work, and we’ll see where it goes. I [have been] working hard all summer”. Samorukov continued “I was in Edmonton for two months for pre-season work. I don’t know [what] summer is for me, one week of rest?”
The Guelph Storm should be better next season. Samorukov wants to play a big role in getting there, and he’s taking tips from the Oilers brass to help along the way. The word from up top? Get bigger, meaner and stronger. It wouldn’t hurt — not Samorukov, anyways — to go into the corners with a little more conviction, either, they tend to think.
If we use Samorukov’s last season as a proxy for his likelihood of developing into a full-time NHL defenceman, there’s a lot of work left yet. Using the pGPS prospect analysis metric (Prospect Graduation Probabilities System) to look at Samorukov’s last season, only 9.9% of the players with a similar statistical and stature based profile played 200 or more games in the NHL (the standard threshold for draft success).
That same draft metric (pGPS) suspects that the most likely career outcome for Samorukov, should he make the NHL, will be that of a third pair defender.
If you can find a third pair defenceman in the third-round, you take that every day of the week. So far, Samorukov hasn’t been able to distinguish himself as significantly better than peers at the OHL level. As Samorukov so plainly laid out, though, he struggled immensely to get used to the North American game for his first six months.
It’s not unreasonable to expect Samorukov, who came to the Storm billed as an offensive defenceman, to find himself on a better team with more support next season. I might go so far as to earmark among the most likely candidates for increased outputs in their sophomore OHL season.
The physical tools are there. Samorukov can deliver a bone-crushing hit, play a good gap in the neutral zone and take advantage of holes in the opposition defence whenever they present themselves. He just hasn’t been able to do that consistently. Not yet, anyway. When he can put the full package together, he might not be as far away from the NHL as he seems at first glance.