George Burnett began his head coaching career 30 years ago as he guided the Niagara Falls Thunder to the third round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. He spent three years in Niagara and made it to the third round all three years. Then the Oilers hired him to coach their AHL affiliate in Cape Breton. They won the Calder Cup in his first season, 1993, then made the playoffs in 1994. Glen Sather promoted hired him to coach the Oilers that summer, but he only lasted 35 games.
The New York Rangers hired him to coach their AHL team for two seasons, then he returned to the OHL as the head coach in Guelph. He lasted one year before the Anaheim Ducks hired him as an assistant coach for two seasons. He left the NHL at the end of the 2000 season and has been in the OHL ever since: Four years as head coach/GM in Oshawa, eleven in Belleville, then they relocated to Hamilton for one season. He spent one year Flint as the GM, and now has been in Guelph for the past two seasons as coach and GM.
In 1998 Burnett led Guelph to the OHL title, but lost the Memorial Cup final 4-3 to the Portland Winterhawks. In 2008 his Belleville Bulls finished third at the Memorial Cup and this year he won his second OHL title with Guelph and they play their third game of the round robin tonight against Prince Albert. The Storm and Raiders are both 1-1 thus far.
Burnett has coached many NHL prospects during his 22 seasons as a head coach in the OHL. He’s seen many make the large leap to the NHL, so I felt his scouting report on Oilers prospect Dmitri Samorukov would be pretty accurate. He’s coached him for two seasons.
“He’s had a different level since he returned from the World Juniors, said Burnett. “Sammy (Samorukov) had a great first half; we were a good team, but not a great team. We dealt with a number of injuries and some adversity, and a number of changes, but he has been a stalwart throughout the entire season. All the attention that he got during the tournament (WJC) and all the accolades are well deserved.”
Samorukov had 4-16-20 in 67 games in 2017, then produced 11-23-34 in 62 games last season and he had 10-35-45 in 59 games this season. He then added 28 points in 24 games en route to the OHL title. His offence took off when defenceman Ryan Merkley (21st pick to San Jose in 2018 draft) was traded. I asked Burnett about Samorukov’s offensive potential.
“He probably took off a little more than expected offensively in the second half of the season and the playoffs; I think he had 28 points in the playoff run. He’s a guy who, first and foremost, is an outstanding defender who is hard to play against, he moves the puck well, he’s fearless, has great feet, he can get in and out of trouble and he can win battles.
“But he also gained a tremendous amount of confidence in making plays and being involved in the offensive side. I don’t want to take anything away from him; I believe he will be an outstanding defensemen in the National Hockey League. Will he be a power play guy at that level? I am not sure, but he does so many other things so well. His future is extremely bright and we are really excited about the way he is playing now,” said Burnett.
The most difficult part of scouting and evaluating is to project what a player will be at the next level. Players develop at different speeds. Some take longer to reach their physical peak, and smart organizations recognize this and adjust their development play accordingly. Every player is different.
Some are capable physically, and mentally, of handling the NHL as a teenager. Others won’t be ready until somewhere between 20-25.
There is so much focus on the high-end player, I think many people overlook how many players need more time developing.
Samorukov has had a breakout season in the OHL. He will feel good about all aspects of his game when his is training this summer and he should come to training camp with a lot of confidence. But how will he react if he isn’t on the powerplay? Will it alter his play five-on-five, because he will have fewer puck touches in a game?
No one really knows, not even the best scout. Will he need one, two or three years in the AHL? It is too soon to say, but the biggest positive we’ve seen from him is that when given an opportunity, more PP time, he flourished with it. Many players don’t excel with more responsibility.
Samorukov, along with Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson, Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones has replenished the Oilers prospect pool for blueliners. Toss in Filip Berglund and Joel Persson and over the next few seasons, we should see a few of these players regularly in the NHL.
Bouchard and Persson have the most offensive upside. Jones is the best skater. Lagesson and Berglund are good defenders. Bear moves the puck well and has a great shot. Samorukov has shown he can play a rugged game, or be defensively sound or add offence. When an NHL opportunity arises, how will they perform?
We’ll see, but I expect Samorukov, like Bouchard, will start in the AHL and Ken Holland will let them learn to be a professional before they get a regular spot in the NHL.
I love this time of year in the NHL due to so many trade rumours. I’ll put my two cents on a few.
1. Trading Darnell Nurse for William Nylander would be a bad decision. Really bad.
2. No one is taking Milan Lucic’s contract full on, even with a sweetener. If he is traded it is likely in a three-way deal with each team paying part of his salary. Ken Holland should just sit down with Lucic and tell him he needs to spend time this summer on the ice improving his puck skills. Lucic’s speed hasn’t been the issue. His inability to make plays when he has the puck has. He admitted to me he is planning on being on the ice more this summer, but Holland and the organization should not only encourage him, but ensure he is on the ice and doing puck drills in confined spaces.
3. Just because a player or coach was in Erie with Connor McDavid doesn’t mean they are more valuable to Edmonton. I’d bring in Connor Brown, but not for Matt Benning. I’d take him for a pick, as the Maple Leafs try to shed salary. I’m 100% certain Brown ($2.1m cap hit) will contribute more than Tobias Rieder ($2m cap hit) did, but I’m not sold Brown is a top-six forward long-term. He could be a good stop-gap, which is fine, but because he played with McDavid in junior doesn’t mean he will produce the same in the NHL.
4. I’m very curious to see how teams view Semyon Varlamov in free agency. Will a team sign him for $4.5m+ on a multi-year deal or will he end up signing a one-year deal and have to prove himself? If he ends up on a one-year pact I could see Holland picking up the phone.
5. Vegas needs to clear cap space and Colin Miller’s name has come up. I’d take a long look at him. He is a second pairing RD right now. He has a $3.875m cap hit for three more years. Holland would have to shed some salary, likely Andrej Sekera or Kris Russell, to add Miller, but they need a right shot D. He isn’t so good I’d want to overpay for him. The challenge is he plays within the division and if Vegas is going to sell low on him, they likely do it to a team outside the division.