A few days ago, I wrote a piece about the development of a group of right-handed defensemen that bore a striking resemblance to the famed history of “Leftorium” in Edmonton Oiler history. I mentioned that the Oilers have a history of lefthanded defensemen developing in groups. Well that trend isn’t finished yet. Philip Broberg, Markus Niemelainen and Dmitri Samorukov are carrying on that notable tradition and the 2022/23 season is set to tell Oiler fans who will be the first to take on a full-time role.
While Philip Broberg is the most notable given his draft pedigree, Markus Niemelainen made a splash last season playing twenty games with the Oilers. However, there is a third left-shot defenseman who made an infamous two-minute debut with the Oilers last year, Dmitri Samorukov. While those two minutes caused a lot of critics to dismiss this prospect, I would not be so quick to close the door on Dmitri Samorukov playing in Edmonton and doing so on a regular basis next season.
Who Is Dmitri?
Samorukov was selected by the Oilers in the 3rd round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. This after a very successful junior career in Canada and also with the Russia U18 and U20 teams. The 6’3” 200-pound Samorukov, like many of his counterparts, had his professional development interrupted during the Covid pandemic. After originally playing 47 games with Bakersfield in 2019/20, he went back to the KHL for the 2020/21 season and played for CKSA registering 8 points in 48 games. This year he returned to the AHL playing 51 games and recording 18 points in an injury plagued season missing 4 games at the start of the season with a broken jaw and the last ten games of the regular season plus the playoffs due to a shoulder injury (Oiler D tradition!).
Samorukov’s development has not been a straight line. Indeed, his initial pro season was less than stellar. He did recover with a very strong KHL season where he was the #3 defenseman on a very strong CKSA team. This year was truly a tale of two seasons because Samorukov started quite slowly recovering from the broken jaw suffered in an Oilers’ training camp game. He had only 3 points before 2022, but really came on strong finishing his last 20 games with 10 points and a plus 16 at 5x5 play in those games. However, the reason that he might be on the radar of the Edmonton Oilers this season has less to do with his recent performance and more to do with the fact, Samorukov is now waiver eligible. The Oilers, with the William Lagesson experience fresh in our memories, are loath to expose these types of players to waivers. So Dmitri’s time might come soon.
What Are His Skills?
The first thing that jumps out when you watch Samorukov is that the big man skates very well. He has excellent stride mechanics and gets to full speed quickly for a bigger player. He also has above average edgework which allows him to evade with the puck and to attack from angles instead of moving straight up and down the ice.
Samorukov is also quite strong defensively both in his own zone and in transition. His skating helps this, but his understanding of how plays are developing in front of them is very strong. It’s interesting to me that much of what I observe is very subtle stick plays instead of more physical ways of separating players from the puck. The surprise is that many comments about him talk up his physical play. While he certainly has that element, he can separate players from the puck using more finesse plays.
Finally, it should be noted that Samorukov can bring some offense to his game. His last two years of junior illustrated that Samorukov’s skating along with a very good shot do create offense. The offense went away after Samorukov turned pro, but in his last twenty games with Bakersfield this year, he did manage ten points. This was during a time when, due to injuries and absences, Samorukov played a lot of first pairing defense with Vincent Desharnais. When given the opportunity, Samorukov can hold his own offensively.
How Does He Jump the Queue?
Samorukov bounced around from 3LD to 1LD all year in Bakersfield. However, by year end, when all players were healthy, Samorukov was 3LD behind Broberg and Niemelainen although the gap to Niemelainen was fairly close. Obviously, that means there is work for Samorukov to do. The most critical element that Samorukov needs to work on his consistency. This is not an innovative comment by me because this has followed him since his junior days. However, it is quite apparent when Samorukov is off in a game. Foremost, he loses his defensive zone badly. He will look lost and tentative at times when it is clear he does understand how to defend. Whether this is a mental skills development requirement or the result of physical fatigue, it needs to be cleaned up.
The other area for improvement I want to highlight is very closely related to the inconsistency critique above. What will absolutely impair Samorukov’s ability to play NHL games is failing to exit the zone. He’s not going to be an offensive dynamo, so he needs to be a steady, reliable defender who gains the puck in his zone and then exits the puck under control. What happened a lot, although much less as the year went on, was Samorukov stopping his feet once he gained the puck and either turning it back over or sending it out of the zone without control. Below is a perfect example where he makes a nice play then fails to move his feet immediately and loses the puck. He then regains the puck, only to stop moving and with his head down simply dump the puck out with no pressure. This happens far too often to make him a reliable NHL defender.
Where Does He Land?
Sometimes in professional hockey, meritocracy isn’t always the decision-making tool. There are often other factors at play such as contract status. Of the three LD prospects, the contract status of Dmitri Samorukov might give him an edge. Given he is waiver eligible this year, the Oilers may not want to risk exposing him before knowing what his game looks like at the NHL level. However, that advantage will be short-lived if Samorukov cannot improve on his consistency and some of his puck skill issues. If he can make those improvements, there is certainly a chance that Samorukov can project to a Nikita Zadorov style of player. IF that happens, Peter Chiarelli will once again need to be applauded for his draft work in Edmonton.