Lafferty honing his skills in minors
By Tom Venesky
Special to the Mirror
WILKES-BARRE — Jarrod Skalde noticed something about Sam Lafferty ever since he joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in early March.
On the ice, the Hollidaysburg native displayed the speed and offensive prowess that allowed him to lead Brown University with 22 points this past season.
But Skalde, who works with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton prospects as the player development coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, noticed something else about Lafferty that is just as important as any on-ice attribute.
“Sam hasn’t taken that smile off his face since he’s been here,” Skalde said. “He’s so full of energy and excited to be here. It’s exciting for us to get his development process underway.”
One reason for Lafferty’s enthusiasm is not only has he officially made it to the pro hockey ranks, but he did so by joining his hometown organization.
Lafferty was a Penguin fan throughout his childhood. He grew up watching Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby on television and tried to replicate their moves at the Galactic Ice rink near his home.
Lafferty and his younger brother, Charlie, even played against Lemieux’s son, Austin, several times in youth hockey tournaments.
“It was fun. There would be a buzz in the stands and kids asking for Austin’s autograph,” Lafferty said. “There’s even a picture in our basement back home of my brother taking a faceoff against him.”
It wasn’t until 2014 when Pittsburgh drafted Lafferty in the fourth round (113th overall) that he realized not only was he close to becoming a pro hockey player, but he had a chance to do it with the team he grew up idolizing.
“It was a dream come true,” Lafferty said of the day he was drafted by Pittsburgh. “I had some idea it was going to happen, but at the same time you don’t really know until they call your name.”
Lafferty officially began his path to pro hockey last month when Pittsburgh signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on March 8. The deal begins with the 2018-19 season, and in the interim he is finishing out the current year on an amateur tryout contract with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After four seasons at Brown and participation in several Penguin development camps, Lafferty hopes to follow the path of former college players Zach Aston-Reese, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, who all have solidified themselves with Pittsburgh after spending time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Work to do
That track from college to Pittsburgh is a blueprint that appealed to Lafferty from the day he was drafted, but he knows there is work to do.
“Seeing the success of a lot of those guys now in Pittsburgh gives you a lot of confidence coming in here out of college,” Lafferty said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m trying to embrace it.”
While Lafferty is expected to begin next season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he has several attributes on which to base his development. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound center has decent size, good speed and great hockey sense, Skalde said.
One area that, according to Skalde, Lafferty needs to work on is his strength along with making the adjustment from the college ranks to the pro game.
“What’s important for his development is getting in games and practices and getting in the gym to get stronger. There is a big jump from college to the American Hockey League,” Skalde said. “Once he gets stronger, Sam is going to be very effective for us.”
Speed an asset
On the ice, Lafferty has begun to produce results. He registered his first pro point – an assist – in his second game with the Penguins and scored his first goal six games later.
And so far, Lafferty said the adjustment to the pro game has been a smooth one thanks to his speed.
“It’s definitely something that is a strength of mine and something I rely on a lot. It’s made it a lot easier knowing I can skate out here,” he said.
While getting games under his belt is crucial for his development, Lafferty has also been a healthy scratch on several occasions — a move that he sees as another chance to aid his development.
While Lafferty has watched the practice habits and daily preparation of his veteran teammates, it’s also important to study how they play on the ice.
“It’s been good for a young guy like me to have the chance to be around the guys more, practice and watch the game,” Lafferty said. “Even just from watching a game you learn a lot — the structure and just where to be. It’s been helpful.”
Now that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton wrapped up a playoff spot on April 7, Lafferty figures to see his ice time increase as the team plays three more games to end the regular season. Skalde said there’s a chance Lafferty will see game action in the postseason as well.
Regardless of if he plays a playoff game or watches, Lafferty is just happy to be a pro hockey player working on an opportunity to play for his hometown team one day.
“It’s just really cool to finally be a part of the Pittsburgh organization,” he said. “It’s so much fun putting on the Penguins jersey and going out there.”