This year’s edition of the Russian world junior team doesn’t have a star defenseman on the level of an Ivan Provorov or Nikita Zadorov, but the team does have a solid NHL prospect in Dmitri Samorukov. The Edmonton Oilers draft pick is now in his second season with the OHL’s Guelph Storm and is on pace to smash his offensive totals from the previous campaign.
Samorukov already has 15 points through 34 games and will easily surpass the 20 points he put up all season as a rookie. Plus, the Storm is in line for a playoff berth after being a league doormat the previous two campaigns.
“He’s a good player in all three zones,” said Storm coach/GM George Burnett. “He skates extremely well, he’s very strong and determined, he wins a lot of battles and moves the puck effectively. He makes real good plays on the power play and he kills penalties, so really, he does everything. He’s determined to be a pro and he likes to be at the rink. Those are the kids you love to deal with.”
Being a Russian teenager in North America is pretty interesting these days. With the home nation often in the news for political reasons and Russia historically a great villain in pop culture, you’d think Samorukov might feel awkward over here. If anything, he’s getting more comfortable. And even the grand stage of the world juniors, where Russia is often pitted against Canada and the United States in crucial medal round games won’t change his cool.
“I don’t really care,” Samorukov said. “We’re just trying to play hockey; it’s our job. It’s hard to listen to (negative stories), with the Olympics (doping scandal). But what can you do? I’m from Russia and I’ll show you my game.”
He does, of course, get questions from his Guelph teammates about his homeland and leader Vladimir Putin, but it seems that nice swag can sway minds.
“I have a lot of Russian clothes and some shirts with Putin on them, so it’s funny,” he said. “A couple guys have Russian jackets that I brought over, so we look like a Russian team.”
And actually, there is another Russian on the Storm, as St. Louis Blues pick Alexei Toropchenko joined the team this fall. The big forward is learning the ropes in Guelph and like Samorukov in his rookie OHL season, English is a bit of a barrier. Luckily for Toropchenko however, he’s got Samorukov to guide him through the process and his buddy on the blueline doesn’t mind making light of the situation.
“It’s easy for him!” Samorukov said with a smile. “I didn’t have anyone to help me. He should pay me! First season was hard, guys were kidding me about my English. But I’ve known Alexei for seven years, we played junior league against each other. It’s cool having a second guy to talk to and we can kid about Canadians.”
Samorukov’s English is pretty good at this point and that has helped him on the ice, as he can understand his coaches much faster. He’s also getting guidance from the Edmonton Oilers, who signed the 2017 third-rounder to his entry-level deal in September. His main directives? Put on more muscle and work on his skating. Burnett has been pleased with the way his import defenseman handled the expectations that come with an NHL contract and the coach has paired the Russian veteran with 2018 draft prospect Ryan Merkley, a high-risk, high-reward type of player who is dynamite with the puck.
“The only time I don’t like it is when they’re both leading the rush,” Burnett said. “But Sammy is very determined defensively as well. He has no fear going into the corners against big, strong veteran guys.”
Right now, Samorukov is playing for a different coach in Buffalo, Russian stalwart Valeri Bragin. When I first ask about the veteran bench boss, Samorukov half-jokingly asks if I’m trying to get info for the Canadians. Nevertheless, he’s happy to be playing for Bragin at the world juniors.
“He’s a pretty good guy,” he said. “He tells it straight, what he wants. It’s pretty easy working with him. Six world juniors, six medals – and I think there will be a medal this year, too.”
Given the program’s track record and the array of talent on Russia, you can never count them out early.