Lafferty already turning heads in minors
WILKES-BARRE — Getting to the Calder Cup playoffs is always a goal for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and they came up a little bit short despite their best efforts.
But focusing too much on standings, points and potential tiebreakers diverted from the more important takeaway from the season’s final weeks.
When it comes to the future of Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the well is far from dry in terms of young players with great potential.
With big names like Garrett Wilson and Teddy Blueger promoted to the NHL — and others like Thomas Di Pauli sidelined by injury — the Penguins were reliant on their rookies and youthful depth throughout 2018-19.
Four of their first-year players played in 61 or more games, and it would have been five if not for midseason injuries to Sam Miletic. As the season wound down, college products like Jake Lucchini and Chase Berger played a significant role in the postseason chase.
Littered throughout were noteworthy performances, especially by Miletic and forward Sam Lafferty, a graduate of Hollidaysburg Area High School.
“They’ve made huge strides,” Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli said. “They’re both going to be competing for games in Pittsburgh next year. They’re both really good players. They’re different players, but they’ve both really improved this year and that’s the game plan. Next year, coming into camp, they’re going to get exhibition games and go from there.”
The 24-year-old Lafferty went on a tear in the final month, recording points in 10 of his final 12 games and nearly catching Ethan Prow for the team lead. He also had two of the Penguins’ highlight-reel goals: a slick backhand after splitting the Hartford defense on Nov. 2 and his midair swat against Lehigh Valley on March 23 that temporarily saved the team?s season.
The coaching staff has raved about his puckhandling from the start, and his team-high 36 assists back that up. However, he showed off more of a scoring touch in the spring and also a degree of feistiness. He got into three fights in the team’s final eight games.
With that combination of grit and skill, it’s no surprise he was named the team’s rookie of the year.
“I thought the line I was put on, I thought we had some good chemistry,” said Lafferty, who flourished with Miletic and Ryan Haggerty. “We contributed and played pretty well. I think that’s something to build on moving into the summer.
“I definitely learned a lot — first year of pro hockey. I think the biggest lesson would just be the consistency. Day to day, game to game, now I know exactly what it takes to be successful day in and day out.”
Of lineup regulars still on the roster last weekend, Miletic’s point-per-game output this season was second only to Joseph Blandisi. He also spent a lot of time on both special teams, and he was among the Penguins’ most disciplined skaters. He committed only seven minor penalties all season.
The other breakout star was Lucchini, who Wilkes-Barre/Scranton threw right into game action out of Michigan Tech. He didn’t look out of place with veterans like Jimmy Hayes and Joseph Cramarossa, scoring six times in only 15 starts. He credited Hayes for lending a helpful voice, helping him adjust as quickly as he could.
The 23-year-old Lucchini said an emphasis this offseason is getting stronger to handle the increased size and physicality among the pro ranks.
“Guys are bigger and stronger, and you have to use your body more,” Lucchini said. “I mean, there’s good players in college and there’s good players here. There wasn’t much difference, but definitely a little bit.”
The list only gets deeper from there.
Anthony Angello had only five points after the calendar turned to February, but he showed plenty of flashes offensively in the first half. His plus-17 rating was one of the team’s best.
Defenseman Matt Abt made the team in training camp and was a regular on the blue line. He was a good complement to Prow and showed he deserves another AHL contract for next season, perhaps back with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
With Jordy Bellerive, Alex D’Orio and Jan Drozg set to make the jump from juniors as well, there’s plenty reason for Penguins fans to be excited for next season.
“Maybe some of our rookies were playing too much early,” Donatelli said. “They have to go through and make those mistakes, and you have to live with that. That’s the only way they learn is to go through it and get better. For us this year, we had to go through that a little bit longer than we liked. The long-term of that situation is it’s going to benefit the organization and us, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. I know it’s not good right now, but we have a bright future ahead of us with some young outstanding talent.”