On Oct. 9, 1981, Ken Berry set the benchmark for the lowest plus/minus rating in an NHL debut when he went minus-4 with the Edmonton Oilers in a 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. For four decades, it stood in infamy as the Oilers’ worst performance by a skater in his first career game. Then Dec. 29, 2021, happened.
Oil Country was awash in excitement that night to see the long-awaited debut of defenceman Dmitri Samorukov, who had just been recalled from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors and was drawing into Edmonton’s lineup against the St. Louis Blues.
Samorukov’s first shift was an uneventful 40 seconds. So far, so good. When he returned to the ice a minute and a half later, Samorukov failed to corral the puck, resulting in a 2-on-0 Blues break that Robert Thomas finished off by scoring on Oilers netminder Mike Smith.
Shift No. 3 saw Samorukov faked out at Edmonton’s blueline by a stutter-stepping Jordan Kyrou, who had a clear path to fire the puck past Smith and give St. Louis a 2-0 lead. The game wasn’t seven minutes old, and already Samorukov was a well-earned minus-two.
Samorukov didn’t break Berry’s dubious plus-minus record, but that’s because he didn’t get a chance to. His fourth shift lasted all of 28 seconds, and that’s the last Edmonton has seen of him. After four shifts totaling 2:28, Samorukov was stapled to coach Dave Tippett’s bench for the final two and half periods and sent back to Bakersfield the next day. It’s hard to recall a more unfortunate debut, not just in hockey, but in sport, period.
Samorukov Shows No Signs of Lost Confidence
Tippett’s benching of Samorukov after throwing the 22-year-old into the fire was roundly criticized by many observers, who rightly worried about shattering the confidence of the promising former Guelph Storm blueliner that Edmonton drafted 84th overall in 2017.
But it appears they need not fear because over five games since returning to Bakersfield, Samorukov has played tremendously, totaling three assists, firing 11 shots on goal, and compiling a plus-3 rating while helping the Condors pick up at least one point in every game, going 3-0-2.
In Bakersfield’s latest outing, a 4-0 road victory over the Abbotsford Canucks on Sunday (Jan. 9), Samorukov was named the Third Star after picking up a pair of assists and to go with a stellar plus-3 rating.
He’s playing his best hockey of 2021-22, and it’s reflected in his numbers since being reassigned, which are better than in his first 15 games with the Condors earlier this season when he totaled three points, 27 shots, and posted a minus-6 rating.
Samorukov Unfazed by Tough Times
Adversity is proving to be no match for the Russian rearguard, who had already overcome one major setback this season long before Tippett sat Samorukov in St. Louis.
During Oilers rookie camp, Samorukov suffered a broken jaw during an exhibition game against the Calgary Flames rookies on Sept. 18. The injury would prevent him from taking part in Edmonton’s main camp and preseason games, where he could have potentially challenged for a spot in the Oilers opening night lineup.
Recovery was expected to take six weeks; Samorukov was back sooner. He received medical clearance and was loaned to Bakersfield, where he played his first game of 2021-22 with the Condors on Oct. 27. Two nights later, he scored the game-winning goal with six seconds left in Bakersfield’s 3-2 victory over the Henderson Silver Knights.
Bringing History to Mind
After his minus-4 debut, Berry played the very next night for the Oilers, Oct. 10, 1981, going minus-1 in a 7-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings. The left winger played 55 career NHL games over parts of four seasons.
In Samorukov’s case, Oilers fans might be more reminded of another green blueliner, Steve Smith. His epic blunder cost the Oilers in Game 7 the 1986 Smythe Division Final against the Calgary Flames.
Just under 15 minutes remained in the third period when Smith inadvertently played the puck off goalie Grant Fuhr and into the back of the Oilers net, resulting in a goal credited to Flames forward Perry Berezan that put Calgary ahead 3-2. Smith, who was making just his sixth career NHL playoff appearance, spent the rest of the game on coach Glen Sather’s bench, looking on through teary eyes as his Edmonton teammates’ furious attempt to score the equalizer came up short.
As bleak as things were for that night for Smith, he regrouped and went on to win three Stanley Cups with the Oilers while blossoming into a top-pairing defenseman who played in the 1991 NHL All-Star Game.
Smith showed then just as Samorukov is showing today: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And with Edmonton’s roster in constant flux this season thanks to COVID protocol, it might be long before Samorukov gets his second chance to make a first impression.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.