Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Elegy for Sergei Samsonov

[Note: Samsonov has cleared waivers and is, for now, still with the Canadiens. It is marginally possible that he will remain there. I hope, then, that this post proves to be foolish and premature. I hope he and the team make their peace. I hope he stays.]

It seems I’m fated to write about Sergei Samsonov. He may be little more than an angry speck in Canadiens history, one of many players who have found the team an uncongenial place to try to wait out a bad season, but in my own personal hockey consciousness he will always have special significance. About two months ago he was the first player to really dazzle me in a live hockey game, since ironically my first game was one of only two he played with the Habs that could accurately be described as ‘dazzling’. Now, it looks as though he will be the first of the team I was given to leave. Although it is difficult to question the wisdom of the decision from a business standpoint, I am sad, still, to see him go in such ignominious fashion.

The tragic thing about it is that, viewed purely from the perspective of the Canadiens’ game on the ice, Samsonov is not especially deserving of punishment. Although he is having an unimpressive season, he still has more points than many on the team, and an even +/-, which is a rarity these days among Habs forwards. He’s unquestionably put forth effort and, in the games immediately preceding these past two, was playing well on a 3rd line with Bonk and Johnson. It looked, in fact, as though they might finally have found a role for him. While he was not the team’s greatest asset, neither was he its greatest liability. Considering only the game itself, he simply cannot be blamed for the team’s troubles, and in and of itself, getting rid of him isn’t likely to solve anything.

But it is never just about the game on the ice, and Samsonov found himself at a particularly unfortunate nexus of hockey forces: expectations, money, and loyalty. These are in some way tangential to the game itself, but they are nevertheless powerful- more powerful, in fact, than the play. They’re undercurrents, and just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they can’t sweep you away.

We expected rather a lot of Sergei Samsonov. He was supposed to score for the Canadiens, who desperately need scoring. When he came here, it was understood in advance what his role was to be: to accumulate points at a consistent rate, and perhaps awaken something in Kovalev such that he would as well. We thought, reasonably or no, that we were buying a fully developed player with a fixed set of abilities, not someone who would require patience and development and faith. Someone who would give us something we needed and ask nothing from us but a salary.

It was, it is, quite the salary. 3rd highest on the team. In effect, by taking so much money, Samsonov bought these very high expectations, he claimed responsibility for them. In such a transaction, the ultimate understanding is that the Habs hadn’t purchased Sergei Samsonov so much as $7 million worth of points which he would deliver to them over the course of two seasons. For less money, we perhaps would not have expected so much. For $4 million less over those two years, we might have been thrilled with him, happy to have a very skilled, defensively solid 3rd-liner who could turn in the occasional brilliant game. But the fact is that there is a hierarchy of value among hockey players, and Samsonov’s contract is not the sort one offers to solid 3rd-liners. Even Radek Bonk, who is making considerably less, playing more consistently, and rapidly becoming a fan favorite, is considered overpaid for his role. $3.5 million per season is the sort of money offered only to high-scoring forwards, reliable goalies, and the occasional celebrity defenseman.

It is not entirely money, though, for Janne Niinimaa is getting $2.5 million and has hardly played at all since November- he is unquestionably being paid more to do less than Samsonov. But while nobody in Montreal particularly likes him, he hasn’t received anywhere near the same level of attention and criticism. He sat night after night in the press box, taking up precious cap space, and no one clamored for his head on a plate. We expect nothing of Niinimaa, even for all that money. He came in, filled a gap in the roster when we needed it, but we have no urgent need of him now and he is not a big name. Samsonov was once considered better than Joe Thornton- no matter what he was paid, it is probable he would have been vilified for no longer being so.

There are others, too, on the Habs who are not living up to expectations- Ryder, Higgins, Koivu, Kovalev, Rivet- who have not been blamed as squarely or certainly as Samsonov for the team’s failings. In the case of Ryder and Higgins, this is because they are young and not terribly expensive, and therefore are forgiven for a certain amount of inconsistency. But for Koivu, Rivet, and especially Kovalev, there is a degree of loyalty and even affection that comes into play, and these things, although they are subjective emotions, have a certain power. The most interesting case is Kovalev, for while he has also been having a deeply disappointing season and is being paid a million dollars more than Samsonov, he has not been the recipient of the same level of criticism. This is not to say he’s never criticized- he certainly is- but while around Samsonov there formed a pretty much solid consensus that he needed to be moved (even amongst his supporters), Kovalev is at worst the subject of an intense debate, and remains extremely popular among a large segment of fans. Kovalev has been with the team for a while now, and has earned a sort of ineffable credulity from Montreal. People, even when irate with him, remember that he did well here in the past, and therefore they have faith that he can and will do so again. The longer he doesn’t, of course, the more that faith erodes, and if things continue as they have, he may find that the ranks of his supporters grow thin. But as it stands now, people will tolerate his mystery and strangeness and underperforming, not merely because he has played amazingly in the past, but because he has played amazingly for us in the past. Samsonov’s great seasons belonged to other teams, and that means that we do not consider them the same way, we do not remember them warmly. We do not have faith that they will come again.

It is not necessarily fair that Samsonov be punished out of measure for the team’s overall failings, but he was ultimately the easiest person to sacrifice, the most obvious and dramatic change that could be made. There’s a kind of depressing logic to abandoning him, regardless of whatever personal behavior or problems might have precipitated the decision. But still, we know on some level that waiving him is not quite just, a cruel and summary judgment on a complex situation. A few weeks ago you would have been hard-pressed to find many in this city defending Samsonov, and indeed the first time he was scratched the general consensus seemed to be that he more than deserved it. But an odd thing has happened- now that we are facing the possibility that we will never again see him in a bleu-blanc-rouge uniform, little bubbles of sympathy have popped up in conversations and on message boards. Not huge waves of love, mind you, nor outrage nor righteous indignation, for most are still ultimately okay with the idea of his leaving. But there are, somehow, more kind words for him today than there have been in months, more little apologetics. He wasn’t really that bad, people say, he just couldn’t find the right chemistry. Maybe Carbonneau mishandled him. Maybe he wasn’t given the power play time he deserved. Maybe they should have tried him with Koivu, before it came to this. There is a twinge of guilt amongst some fans and in the media, that maybe we somehow caused this, or made it harder for him. People look at each other anxiously and whisper about how we’ll never get another big signing again, this city’s just too hard to play in, no player in his right mind would take a chance on us, with our obsessive, intolerant press and are booing, mocking crowds.

I don’t know if there’s any good way to leave a team, short of the well-earned retirement after a long and loved career. Whether traded or waived or simply allowed to leave at the expiration of a contract, and even when it’s ultimately for the best, I doubt it’s ever a comfortable process for players. This moment must be painful for Samsonov, not only because his failure and dismissal came in one of the few cities where a hockey player having a terrible season is an epic drama followed by thousands, not only because he has been made a very public spectacle. I think it must be hard because slumps are, at the very core of them, inexplicable things, because he did not fail here because of an injury or a lack of effort but rather because the puck simply would not go in the net. He had a talent, once, that seems to have left him, although he has the same body and the same skill set he always did, something has changed and he is not this season the player that he once was. And his team, if it ever really was his, is betting that he won’t be that player again. It must be a harsh and lonely place inside his head right now, looking out over a wide-open, uncertain future.

I am ashamed that we did not have enough faith in him.

The true fans will tell me that I should be thrilled to see him go, to get back some cap space and maybe some room for a better performing player. They will tell me that I will see a lot of coming and going in this sport, and that eventually most of them won’t even have faces anymore, just a passing run of numbers. In the end, the only thing worth caring about is the CH, isn’t it?

With all due respect to the true fans, the day I stop caring about ‘my’ players as human beings, when I start treating them as commodities, when I cannot manage any compassion or affection for people who are risking their bodies night after night for this rough, luscious game, that is the day I leave hockey and never look back. Good seasons or bad, from Sidney Crosby to Rory Fitzpatrick and everything in between, in the NHL and the AHL and the QMJHL and all those other acronyms, they are hockey. Without them there’s nothing but frozen chemicals and rubber discs and high-tech water-resistant fabrics. If you care about a team, you should care about the guys who give themselves to it, even when they do badly, even when they fail. Samsonov played for us, for me, and I am thankful that he did, and I regret deeply that it has come to such an ugly ending.

Somewhere there is a role for him, I know that much. Somewhere is a team who could use a speedy, stylish winger, who might be able to adapt to him even if he cannot adapt to them. The question, I suppose, is who has the cap space for him, who can afford to be patient and have some faith. I think they’ll be rewarded for it, in the long run, if there is such a thing in hockey.

Goodbye, Sammy, habibi. May you find fair winds and following seas, wherever you go.


Math Man said...

I've been reading your blog for a while and I've always highly appreciated your very human perspective on the game. I'm replying to this one because it's genuinely touched me. Maybe because I, too, have an apreciation for players as human beings, and a soft spot in my heart for Samsonov. And faith in him, maybe too much.

Were your words premature? We can hope. He has stayed with the team, and everyone's words to the effect that they want him to get out of his funk may well be sincere. I don't think anyone wishes him to fail. Somewhere there is a team that could use a speedy, stylish winger, and in the right spot, the Habs may yet be that team.

Were your words foolish? I, for one, think not.

Jordi said...

Well you've beaten me to it. But I am genuinely happy that there are people who wont boo him as soon as he appears.

I think what makes me anxious as hell is what can we make out of it? Can we bring in the huge blockbuster deal everyone "knows" will happen? What if the guy we bring in... doesn't live up to the expectations?

Robert said...

Essentially, Samsonov was placed on waivers to shut up a demanding player agent.

His ego must have taken a hit, seeing he is unwanted.
I too, care about players as human beings, but only after they have built up an emotion in me that brings such sympathy forth. Samsonov has come nowhere near that yet. Why is it okay that the player and agent can make demands but that when the team's expectations of the player are not met, they must compromise their position.

If it were up to me, Samsonov would be getting ready for the next Bulldogs game.

E said...

robert- changed your i.d., i see. that threw me for a minute. anyway, you've got a point. i don't really mean to say that all fans have to like all players all the time. that would be ridiculous. to me, the sad thing is that i don't think samsonov did anything to hurt the team- i don't think he's been lazy or difficult or anything like that. his slump is either bad luck (in which case it will pass eventually), bad chemistry (in which case he deserved more time away from kovalev to develop that), or his skill has simply degenerated and this is the end of his career (in which case he deserves some basic human sympathy, because that sucks). i don't like to see him scapegoated for the team's overall problems, and, as jordi said, i have yet to see what sending him to hamilton would accomplish for the habs. maybe they're not great with him, but they're not better without him. it's fine not to like him, but i'd hope you can see that there's no more reason to blame him than lots of other Canadiens this season.