Much more so than a year ago, Sam Lafferty believes he belongs here during his second Penguins training camp, a feeling shared by most young pros.
The difference between Lafferty and the other guys, though, is that they didn’t grow up 90 minutes east of PPG Paints Arena and during their formative years as a player cheer for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.
So, yeah, it’s understandable the Hollidaysburg native felt a little out of place last September when he first hit the ice with some of his favorite players.
This year, Lafferty is still doing some stargazing, watching Crosby the closest. But he is significantly less in awe. And that’s a good thing, because the Penguins could call upon the speedy 24-year-old this season, maybe even right away.
“That would be awesome,” he said. “Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to play for the Penguins. So it would be a dream come true. But I’ve still got a lot of work left. I’m just going to keep chipping away and the rest will take care of itself.”
That’s what Lafferty has done since joining the American Hockey League club late in the 2017-18 season, just days after he wrapped up a productive college career at Brown. He got a taste of pro hockey that spring. Then, after pinching himself after his first Penguins camp last summer, made his mark in the AHL.
Lafferty, whose primary position is center, settled in as the season went along. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff, then led by Clark Donatelli, put him on the power play and asked him to kill penalties. And in the final few weeks, Lafferty and linemates Sam Miletic and Ryan Haggerty peppered opposing goalies.
Lafferty led the AHL club with 14 multi-point games. He finished with 49 points, second on the team. And his 36 assists ranked fourth among AHL rookies.
“I just tried to have a good attitude and work as hard as I can. Fortunately, they gave me some opportunities,” he said. “And I was able to take advantage.”
Well, he didn’t take advantage of them all, something he lamented Sunday.
“I had a lot of chances last year and I wish I would have converted more of those, produced some more goals,” said Lafferty, who tallied 13 in 70 games.
Improving his shot was an emphasis this offseason, along with winning more faceoffs. Training in Arizona, which he has done for a few summers now, he fired puck after puck after puck five days a week. He was shooting for a quicker trigger. He also wanted the release of the puck off his blade to be more deceptive.
Lafferty, a 2014 fourth-round pick, only scored eight goals in his final season at Brown and only hit double digits once. So he may not have as high of a ceiling as Pittsburgh’s top forward prospects. But his role at the annual Prospect Challenge in Buffalo this month said a lot about what the Penguins think about him.
He skated between Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare on the first line, worked on the top power play and killed penalties, using his wheels to hustle up the ice for an unassisted shorthanded goal. Someone sewed a “C” on his sweater, too.
Now the Penguins are keeping a close eye on Lafferty at training camp.
“He plays with tremendous speed. Has good skill level. Really competes. We like his overall game,” assistant GM Jason Karmanos said last week. “He’ll certainly be trying to earn a spot on the Penguins and we feel like he’s close. If he doesn’t make it, I’d be shocked if he isn’t among the first names for call-ups.”
And if he does make the big club at some point, it will be one heck of a story.
Lafferty was 5 when Mario Lemieux came out of retirement and led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals in 2000-01. That high-scoring squad captured his attention. Around the same time, an ice rink was being built down the road.
He got on the ice, got hooked and later starred at Hollidaysburg Area High School. In 2011, Lafferty headed to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. The Penguins picked the local kid after he put up 55 points during his final year there.
At Brown, he kept tabs on the Penguins as Crosby and Co. chased Cups.
Now he’s trying to convince them he’s ready to help with that endeavor.
“This year, I’m just a lot more confident,” the 6-foot-1 righty said. “It’s just really fun, honestly, to be around some of these guys. Just watching them, especially Sid and the way he goes about things, I feel like you get so much better.”