ROCKFORD, United States - In the summer of 1997, the Boston Bruins had two draft choices in the top 10. With their first selection, the first overall selection, they chose Joe Thornton of the Soo Greyhounds. At number eight, they took Russian forward Sergei Samsonov.
Thornton was a blue-chip prospect. He wasn’t touted as the next Gretzky or Lemieux, but he was big, had soft hands for passing and rough hands to help him carry that mean streak he was known for, and he had a great shot. He was the real deal. The CBC television network in Canada even followed Thornton for the first season, making a documentary on the 18-year-old rookie’s entrance to superstardom in the NHL. At 19, speaking little English, Samsonov flew under the radar and made the team as well.
But strange things happened. Thornton struggled with the extra speed and skill of the NHL game while Samsonov thrived. At one moment in the documentary, then-GM Harry Sinden commented to a colleague while watching a Bruins practice that he wished Thornton could be more like Samsonov.
Ten years later, Thornton has developed into one of the top players in the game, a player who, indeed, has that same speed and size and skill from his junior days but who has now adapted it to the NHL level. In 2005-06, he made history by becoming the first player ever to win the Art Ross Trophy during a season he was traded. Despite going to San Jose, he recorded 125 points to lead all NHL scorers. Additionally, he has played for Canada at the Olympics, World Championships, and World Cup. During the lockout season, he teamed with Rick Nash to lead Davos to a championship in the Swiss National League A.
Samsonov got the first laugh, but the laugh has been on him almost ever since. He had a sensational rookie season, scoring 22 goals and finishing with 47 points, and he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. He displayed grit beyond his tiny 5’8” (176 cm) frame, and his puck sense at age 19 was veteran-like in its maturity. As a rookie, Thornton recorded - believe it or not - three goals and seven total points. Seven points his first year!
Over the next five years, as Thornton slowly developed his talents and got used to play in the NHL, Samsonov was a model of consistency. He peaked in 2000-01, scoring 29 goals and finishing with 75 points, but things started to unravel in 2002-03 when he missed most of the year with a serious wrist injury. Still, he made a full recovery the year after and was impressive enough to be named to Russia’s team for the 2004 World Cup. The year after, he posted his fifth 20-goal season during a season the Bruins traded him to Edmonton.
In many ways, this trade marked the peak of Samsonov’s career. The Oilers made the move at the trade deadline in March, hoping to add offensive spark to an already impressive lineup. The team went all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Carolina, and Samsonov contributed handily, scoring four goals and assisting on eleven others. With his value at an all-time high, he decided to test free agency and ended up signing with Montreal. From there, the decline was swift and irrevocable.
Samsonov found himself a healthy scratch too often and coach Bob Gainey spent most of the year frustrated by Samsonov’s performance. The unhappiness was mutual, and at the end of a year in which he scored just nine goals in 63 games, Samsonov was traded by the Canadiens to Chicago for Jassen Cullimore and Tony Salmelainen. Perhaps there was fair value in this deal. The Habs never signed Cullimore, who ended up with Florida as a free agent, and Salmelainen wound up in Toronto.
Samsonov came to training camp with the Hawks hoping for a fresh start, but he failed to deliver positive results that are supposed go with such a fresh start. In 23 games this season, he scored exactly zero goals and added four assists, earning himself a place in the newspaper in the most miniscule game notes of all - the waiver report. The Hawks put him on waivers to start the new year, and one day later, January 2, 2008, he suffered the final humiliation - a one-way ticket to the farm team, the Rockford IceHogs, after all 29 teams passed over the chance to acquire him for nothing. Only Alexei Yashin has disappeared as quickly and quietly in recent times.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Joe Thornton is 11th in NHL scoring this season with 46 points and helping his Sharks to another place in the playoffs. With four points on the season, Samsonov ranks 531st in the scoring race. He may have the Calder Trophy in his living room, but Thornton, the disappointment from his rookie season, is now in his prime and proving a dominant force in the game. If only the CBC had made their documentary this year!Notebook:
- Samsonov joins an IceHogs team that includes only one other European, Niklas Hjalmarsson of Sweden.
- Samsonov made his IceHogs debut on Friday night, scoring a goal in a 5-4 win over the Chicago Wolves.
- This is the first year of the IceHogs; Chicago’s AHL affiliate last year was the Norfolk Admirals.
- Samsonov’s salary for this year is $3,525,000.
- This is not Samsonov’s first time to the minors. He played for the Detroit Vipers (Gordie Howe’s old team) in 1996-97, after two years with CSKA Moscow, and it was this move that enabled him to impress Boston scouts prior to the 1997 draft.