The Edmonton Oil Kings have claimed first place in the WHL's Eastern Conference and the postseason home ice advantage that comes with it. The team was expected to be vastly improved this year and pre-season expectations were that the Oil Kings would challenge for a division and conference title.
The September roster was strong but GM Bob Green added a trio of impact players during the course of the season with no cost to his active squad. First it was defenceman Cody Corbett, plucked from Minnesota high school, and then top line player Tyler Maxwell acquired via trade from the Everett Silvertips.
The final new addition was a late arriving Christmas present in Henrik Samuelsson which gave the team a whole new dimension. A closer look at the 2012 draft eligible forward's tenure with the Oil Kings follows...
Edmonton added Samuelsson just before the WHL trade deadline after the forward opted to leave Modo in the Swedish Elite League. He guested on The Pipeline Show at that time and explained the circumstances that led to his arrival in Edmonton and the WHL.
Samuelsson recorded points in 7 of the 8 February games that he appeared in totaling 10 points along the way. Since then he's added 11 more points, been suspended twice and firmly cemented his position on the team.
I recently asked Bob Green and head coach Derek Laxdal if their expectations of Samuelsson from before he arrived matched well with the player and performance they have seen since.
"We knew that he was big and strong and protected the puck well, finishes checks and he’s physical and hard to play against and that’s exactly what he’s been," described Green, "With the skill level that he’s got, it makes for a pretty good game."
Samuelsson's strength has, in my opinion, been his most dominant trait and is what sets him apart from many players in the league. He's listed by the Oil Kings as being 6'2 and 195 lbs but in reality, when he arrived in Edmonton he was 215 lbs and it showed on the ice in both good and bad ways.
"He rarely loses battles along the wall," a scout told TPS, "That is where he is at his best; in deep on the forecheck, fighting for the puck and using his strength to bring it out and drive to the net."
As with all players his age, Samuelsson has areas to work on and most point to his skating as priority number one.
"He has no second gear," one scout warned.
At the beginning of his tenure with the Oil Kings Samuelsson played on a line with T.J Foster and Kristians Pelss who are not only two of the fastest players on Edmonton's roster but in the entire WHL. It would be hard for anyone to keep up with those two speedsters on a regular basis and I wondered if the quickness of his linemates made Samuelsson appear more sluggish than he actually is.
"We knew that he had some deficiencies in his game but he’s been a real pleasant surprise for us," countered coach Laxdal, "At times he hasn’t looked very energetic, slow, but it’s been a learning process for him. The first five games you’re playing on adrenaline and then the next few games I thought he was finding his way a bit. There’s a learning curve for him and with that come peaks and valleys. He’s a big addition to our hockey club."
Skating is a skill that players can work on and many have over the years. For Samuelsson, part of the solution is simply to improve his conditioning and lighten the load he's carrying.
"He’s probably got to drop a little bit of weight," Laxdal told TPS in mid-February, "He’s sitting at about 215 lbs right now and ideally we’d like to see him down to about 205 lbs and that will come."
For his part, Samuelsson agrees with that assessment and points out that he's already come down from his peak weight.
"At the end of last year I was about 225 lbs so I’m already down like 10 or 15 pounds," he smiled, "I just have to keep bringing it down to about 205 lbs. That will definitely help my skating. It’s like having a weight vest on while you’re skating so if i can lose that it will make me faster."
"I don’t want to lose too much though because then I won’t be big enough."
And that size is something the Oil Kings desperately lacked before Samuelsson's arrival in town. Fellow 2012 draft eligible forward Mitch Moroz and Klarc Wilson were the only other forwards with a consistent physical side to their game in Edmonton's line up so getting Samuelsson was perfect timing.
"We have a lot of smaller, skilled guys so that’s what they needed in the line up to go far into the playoffs," Samuelsson said.
Coach Laxdal now considers Samuelsson a key player on the roster.
"He’s a big body presence for us; he really protects the puck well and he has a quick release so he can score from anywhere," he said, "He’s 18 and he’s only played 20-some games in the Western Hockey League so we know that he’s only going to get better. He’s got skills that we can’t teach, we just want to help flourish that a bit. He’s a big part of our team and he’ll be a big part of our playoff run."
There is no debate that Samuelsson isn't a fast skater but that doesn't automatically mean that he's a bad skater either. Technically speaking, the coach sees no problem.
"He’s not a choppy skater, he’s got a pretty good stride," Laxdal said, "He’s just got a bit of baby fat on him, let’s put it that way, and I think after a summer of training he’ll learn how to become a really good junior and a good pro."
Bob Green agrees with that notion and suggests time and maturity will naturally help Samuelsson's foot speed.
"Does his skating affect his game? I would say no. His skating will get better so I don’t think that it’s an issue for him," argued Green, "He’s 18 years old, he’s 6’2 and over 200 lbs, it’s hard to move a body that big at that age because you just don’t have the physical strength yet in your lower body. Once he develops that his skating will be fine.
"He can lug the puck out of our end if he needs to, he gets to loose pucks, he gives himself an opportunity to finish hits, it’s not like he’s late there so i just don’t see where it affects his game."
His physical play has been a welcomed addition to the Oil Kings roster. In a recent game against Red Deer, Samuelsson flattened defenceman Mathew Dumba with a clean hit sending the Rebel flying backward onto his butt.
"He likes doing that, it’s a big part of his game," smiled Green, "He’s a North American style of player and I think he’s just going to get better and better but i think he’s adapted pretty quickly in my mind."
It's easy to forget because Samuelsson has a Swedish background and came here from Sweden but there is good reason why he plays a "North American style of game" - outside of the first three months of this year, he's played all of his hockey in the United States.
Samuelsson grew up in Phoenix and played his minor hockey there before joining the US-NTDP where he skated with the U17 team that plays in the USHL. During the 2010-11 season he notched 11 points in 27 USHL games with the US program.
Plus, this isn't even the first time that he's skated with the Oil Kings. Edmonton listed him a few years ago and invited him to their off-season training camp which he recalls fondly.
"The pace was really high," he said, "It was an intense camp."
That familiarity with the organization and some of the players has contributed to how well he has fit in with his new teammates this year.
"The best thing he did was come to our camp two years ago as a 15 year old," explained Green, "Guys really liked him there and they wanted him to come back the next year and play right away. He just fits right in. He’s not a cocky kid or anything. The fit in the room has been really good."
On the ice, Samuelsson admits that there has been some adjustment needed because it is different than what he experienced in both the SEL and the USHL.
"The league has definitely met my expectations," he said, "I’m not used to having three or four games in a week, I’m used to having just one or two. [And] switching from playing small minutes with Modo over there to playing big minutes over here."
Samuelsson played for his father in Sweden, former NHLer Ulf Samuelsson. He says that shift length was always an issue growing up.
"When I was younger my dad always harped on me for taking too long of a shift so when I played for him I had to take short shifts," he laughed, "At the beginning of the year I had a couple of shifts that were upwards of two minutes... he didn’t like that very much."
After 25 games he has 21 points, definitely a respectable total considering he's still a WHL rookie getting used to the league. One scout pointed out that Samuelsson only has 6 goals and wonders if he's just been snake bitten or if the offence isn't going to come. One could argue that with the skilled linemates he's playing with, the assists are much easier to come by.
Regardless, Samuelsson is happy with his decision to come to Edmonton. It's unlikely that he jumps to the NHL next season and with SEL and CHL on his resumé he does not have a NCAA option so he'll be back with the Oil Kings again next year. For now, he's concentrating on the present.
"It’s a really good league and I’m happy that I made the move over," he said, "The team is better than I thought; it’s such a good team, it’s great to play here. [Chemistry] is starting, it takes a while but by the playoffs we’ll have good chemistry. It’s a pretty tight knit group and everyone hangs out, everyone gets along really well so that’s good."
For the team's brass, they know now what they have in Samuelsson right now and are excited about the player they expect he'll grow into.
"He’s only 18 but he’s a monster and it’s scary that with his skill level and that physical aspect to his game, how good he really could be," said Green.
- NHL Central Scouting ranked him 33rd in Europe in their mid-season release. International Scouting Services has him slotted 47th overall (Feb 15th).
- Older brother Philip was drafted by the Oil Kings in the 10th round back in 2007 but opted for Boston College and the NCAA path. "Philip wanted to get an education," Henrik told me, "He said that major junior was probably the fastest route to get to the next level but college was good for getting physically stronger. Both are good routes but I had to make my decision for myself."
- The differences between the two brothers are noteworthy. Not only is Henrik a forward while Phil is a blueliner but the younger brother is apparently far more physical.
- Samuelsson has received two separate 1-game suspensions from the WHL. The first was for charging, the second for kneeing.
- Asked about "Sammy", the nickname he's been given by his new teammates: "The boys picked it so it really wasn’t up to me. They called me 'Hank' [in Sweden] and I was 'Sammy' with team USA. It doesn’t really matter to me."
- On what it's like to have Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe as his billet family: "They’ve got a great set up, can’t complain," he laughed, "He’s a really nice guy and it’s a nice family so I’m quite happy to be at their house. My dad played with him with the Rangers and has nothing but good things to say about Kevin."
- Does he keep in contact with any of his old U17 USA teammates? "I’ve talked to Seth [Jones] and Miles [Koules], a couple of my buddies over there," he said. Jones recently visited North Dakota which is where Koules will play if he chooses the NCAA route. Both also have WHL options; Everett for Jones and Medicine Hat for Koules.
- According to sources, the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL had serious interest in acquiring Samuelsson once word was out that the player was considering a return to North America. With his spot with the US-NTDP filled by Riley Barber and his USHL rights unclaimed, the Lumberjacks explored signing him.
(All Photos by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings)