No player has provided a better example of new NHL opportunity for Checkers players than Jerome Samson did on Tuesday.
Playing in his fifth professional season for the Carolina Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate, Samson had continued to do what he’d always done. Namely, that meant ranking among the team leaders in scoring, winning more battles and taking more shots than anyone else.
Still, despite the 24-year-old's constant status as one of the team’s most dangerous offensive players, the undrafted forward saw five of his fellow Checkers forwards head to the NHL in a total of 10 separate recalls before his invitation finally came earlier this week. He made the most of it, registering his first NHL goal – on the power play, no less – in the Hurricanes’ 3-1 loss to Philadelphia while firing a team-high five shots on goal.
Though important for Samson and important to his team at the time – it tied the score at 1-1 in the second period – the goal itself wasn’t as significant as the process that led to it. Having played in a defensive role on Carolina’s fourth line for his first 30 NHL games over the course of the last two seasons – a fate shared by many of his AHL teammates during that time – new Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller put Samson in a scoring situation much more reminiscent of his role in the minors.
“It’s not even comparable to what I had last year,” said Samson, speaking to the media in Raleigh after the game, of his 23-game NHL stint to close last season. “It’s the same rink, same team, same dressing room and same environment, but the situation I was put in out there, they’re really not the same.
“They expect a little more out of you. Try to create things out there offensively and try to bring the puck to the net instead of maybe just going out there and trying to be safe, chip in and chip out and stuff like that.”
That continued a recent trend concerning the organization’s young players since the Canes made their coaching change in late November, with Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Riley Nash all seeing significant time in significant roles when in the NHL. By the end of the game, Samson was playing with Eric Staal, nearly converting on a two-on-one break that would have tied the score late in the third.
“I thought he deserved the opportunity,” said Muller following the game. “It’s not because he’s young or anything. When the kids come up and play well, we’re going to reward them.”
Whether it’s a result of differences on coaching philosophy or merely circumstances – with his job not on the line, Muller certainly has more freedom to experiment than his predecessor, Paul Maurice, did near the end of his tenure – that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed in Charlotte. Ever since Bowman potted two goals alongside Staal in December, all of the Hurricanes’ forward recalls save for Sutter have made an appearance on the top line.
“Other than when he talks to (Checkers coach Jeff Daniels), I don’t think Muller knows much about the guys down here until they’re brought up,” said Dalpe, who scored his first NHL goal of the season while playing on the top line late last month. “He puts you in a role where you’re comfortable and get a chance to play with good players. Good for Sammy and good for us guys that want to make it up there and experience that.”
Dalpe, who has played 28 games with the Hurricanes over the last two seasons, said there was “a different flavor” with the new coach in charge, adding that the main message players receive now is to stay competitive at all ends of the ice. In other words, it’s not much different than what they hear in Charlotte.
“It starts down here, and that’s been the message all year,” said Daniels, who added that he considered Samson to be one of the Hurricanes’ better forwards on Tuesday. “It’s not about the points, it’s about how you compete and play the game. Samson is the perfect example.
“The puck finds him and he puts the puck at the net. One of the assets I thought he showed last night was getting the puck out of the corners, getting it to the net and staying strong on the cycle.”
His scoring play, which started when he knocked veteran Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros off the puck in the corner before dishing it back to another former Checker, Justin Faulk, on the point, was vintage Samson.
Though it was a goal reminiscent of the 121 that Samson has scored at the AHL level, it’s one that he won’t forget, even if the fine details get a little hazy, as Dalpe can attest to.
“I don’t even remember the play because it’s a blur where you’re so excited to get the goal and because so much went behind it,” said Dalpe of his first NHL goal, which came on Jan. 1, 2011. “It’s a dream, and one you didn’t think would ever happen.”
Time will tell how long Samson’s NHL stint will last, with Jeff Skinner cleared for contact and thought to be nearing a return as of Wednesday afternoon. If Samson gets another chance to play, Daniels said he would still have to consistently put in that type of performance to stay in the NHL. If his stay comes to a quick end, Muller will still have a better idea of what he has at his disposal.
“From what I’ve seen of Samson, he’s certainly shown that he can play at this level,” said Muller.