Penguins forward Sam Lafferty knows he belongs in NHL

Penguins forward Sam Lafferty knows he belongs in NHL

By: Seth Rorabaugh – TribLive.com

Sam Lafferty is an NHL player.

That notion has been verified through a 10-game apprenticeship in which he has scored six points.

But will he remain in the NHL?

That is up for debate.

With Evgeni Malkin on the verge of returning from injury, the Penguins will have to decide which of the 12 forwards who dressed for Tuesday’s 7-1 rout of the Philadelphia Flyers at PPG Paints Arena will have to transition from participant to spectator.

Lafferty was a healthy scratch for the game as Alex Galchenyuk returned from injury.

The last — and perhaps only — time in Lafferty’s hockey life he served as a healthy scratch on a regular basis came late in the 2017-18 season when he completed his senior season at Brown and joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on an amateur tryout contract.

“When I first got to Wilkes-Barre, when I left college, I probably played probably every other game for the last 20 games before,” the Hollidaysburg native said. “It’s an experience I’ve had before. It’s obviously not fun. You want to play. But you just want to control what you can and keep getting better.”

Lafferty appeared to improve steadily since he was recalled Oct. 8 as an injury replacement.

Initially used as a right wing on the fourth line, he graduated to being the second-line center for a handful of games as more injuries hit. He also inherited some penalty-kill shifts.

“He’s gaining confidence with every game that he plays, as he should,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said a few weeks ago. “I think he knows now that not only can he play in this league, but he belongs.”

Yet Lafferty, a 24-year-old rookie, might find himself back in the American Hockey League as the Penguins’ injured forwards round back into shape.

Lafferty understands being a healthy scratch or a potential demotion are because of roster management and not related to dissatisfaction with his play.

“The coaches have just said, ‘Just have a good attitude and keep working and just keep getting better,’ ” Lafferty said. “That’s what I’m going to try to do and just control what I can.”

Sullivan said he keeps the lines of communication open with players.

“Whenever the coaches make that type of a decision, I always have a conversation with guys,” Sullivan said. “We’re pretty transparent when it comes to the decisions we make and why we make them and how it affects each individual player on our team. I sit with these guys a lot and communicate that so there’s no guesswork and everybody understands where they’re at and why we make the decisions we make.

“As I say to the players all the time, we don’t expect them to always agree with the decisions we make, but our hope is they’re respectful of them. This is an instance where Sam has played extremely well. That was a real difficult lineup decision that we made.”

Wherever he is when the Penguins host the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, Lafferty has proven himself through these 10 games.

“I’ve gained a lot of confidence from it knowing I can be a good NHL player I think someday,” Lafferty said. “I can take that and just keep going.”

“It’s just playing in games and having that experience and being with the team and everything. Just knowing that now I’ve done it, I know for sure I can do it. I always thought I could, but now I have. I just take that with me, and it gives me a lot of confidence.”