For as much grief as he’s been causing the opposition lately, Jerome Samson might get just as much of it back from his own teammates.
No one is begrudging him of the fact that his current seven-game point streak (4g, 6a) has launched him to the top of the team’s scoring chart. He’s been the Checkers’ most consistent forward all season, recording points in 10 of the team’s 13 games. He’s also been a force on the power play, as he leads the team with 7 points on the man advantage.
Instead, it’s another stat that he constantly hears about. Once again, he’s the AHL’s runaway leader in shots on goal with 69 – a full 19 shots more than any other player. Had it not been for his NHL recall at the end of last season, he almost certainly would have finished with the league lead for the second year in a row.
“All my coaches have appreciated me shooting so much, but my teammates always tease me about it,” he said, a claim that was confirmed minutes later when a small group of Checkers players walked by, unaware of what Samson had said, and did just that.
“I shoot the puck a lot, but I don’t think I shoot it for no reason. I try to get in close, and anything from the top of the circle has a good chance of going in.”
Still, it’s enough for linemates to playfully suggest that he’s missing them when they’re open. That notion would seemingly be debunked by the fact that Samson has just as many assists as goals (7) and actually has more helpers during his current streak.
Even if that were to get him off the hook with the forwards, he also has the defensemen to worry about. They get irritated with him too, but only because he practices as hard as he plays and is every bit as physical along the boards.
“He brings it every day,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “It’s frustrating for the defensemen and guys get upset with him all the time, but it’s really good for them to go against him because it makes them better.”
“Sure they get mad, but if they get mad, it probably means I’m doing something right,” said Samson.
Specifically, what Samson is doing right is being as difficult as any player to separate from the puck when he has possession. That leads to him having the puck around the net more often, which leads to more shots from in close.
Samson described that as “playing his game,” which is all he’s done during his current hot streak, one that he wasn’t even aware of until asked for the purpose of this story. That’s also what he does when he goes for long stretches without getting the call to move up to the NHL, even as a short-term injury replacement – something that has already happened three times since the start of the regular season.
“He doesn’t get rattled if he gets passed over and other guys go up,” said Daniels. “He always has a good attitude.”
Samson, who at least held a share of the scoring lead on the Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate for two consecutive seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and was on track to do so again when he went to the NHL for good on Feb. 13 of last season, has played a total of 30 NHL games, 23 of which came last season.
That’s more than many players get, but not as much as one might expect of a 24-year-old player with his minor-league track record. As an undrafted player, he doesn’t have the same pedigree of some of the Checkers’ other forwards, but there are none that can match his level of production.
That has Samson at a near loss for words as to why he hasn’t gotten more of a chance at the next level, his frustration clear.
“Obviously it’s hard,” he said. “I want the call and I work for it every day whether it’s in the summer or in the season. I know what I have to do, but it’s been like this every year. I don’t think they can look at me and say that I’m a troublemaker or I don’t work hard.”
What’s also clear is that, if the frustration is affecting his on-ice performance, it’s affecting it in a good way.
“He’s very determined to prove people wrong,” said Daniels.
After last season’s extended run with the Hurricanes, Samson was even more hopeful that he might stick with the big club. However, despite remaining effective on the cycle in his fourth-line role in the NHL, free agent signings and the emergence of some of the organization’s other young players caught him in the numbers game once again.
“I thought I did well with the ice time I had and learned how to play the role they wanted to,” he said of last season’s NHL experience. “I can’t play the same way both places, because there they want me to be safe but here I have to be more creative. Here I can try to go around a guy, but I know it’s something I can’t quite do when I go up.”
Now that he’s continuing his stellar scoring pace that’s actually become the norm for him – this seven-game streak is the fourth of his AHL career, including a career-best eight-game run two seasons ago – one has to wonder what else he can possibly do to make a name for himself.
The good news is that, according his coach, Samson has not hit a developmental plateau in year number five.
“He’s just getting stronger,” said Daniels. “It’s just the complete game. The process starts down here, and there were things he sometimes got away with that he wouldn’t up top.”
Samson said that he’ll continue to hone that part of his game, focusing on back-checking and making the most of his time on the penalty kill, which is potentially the only thing keeping him from being an ideal checking-line forward in the NHL.
He’ll also continue to do what he does best, which has gotten him this far.
“I’m here, so I try to be here in my mind as well,” he said. “If I do what I do, maybe it will happen.”
The Checkers are in the midst of a nine-game road swing and will return to Charlotte Friday, Nov. 18 to host the Rockford IceHogs for a two-game set. Friday's game is presented by the Marines and the Checkers will wear special black jerseys, courtesy of Amtrak.