Mike Sullivan was quick recently to correct a reporter who asked about “the AHL guys,” a few players who were contributing after being called up. They are, the coach insisted, Pittsburgh Penguins for now and thus are being treated as such.
It was a show of support for Sam Lafferty, Adam Johnson and Joe Blandisi, who are helping to fill in for some key Penguins forwards who are injured. Perhaps even more important, it was also a sign of the inclusion the newbies have felt from the full team.
“It’s just a great group of guys here,” Johnson said. “Everyone is just pretty down to earth, and they welcome guys with open arms. They make it really comfortable for new guys, and I think that’s a big reason for the success here.”
The Penguins have won four straight games going into a date Friday against the Dallas Stars at PPG Paints Arena. Lafferty, Johnson and Blandisi have contributed. Since being recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, those three have combined for five goals and four assists over the past week or so.
They each said being welcomed by their veteran teammates has helped them have confidence on the ice.
“All the guys have been great,” said Lafferty, 24, who has three goals, five points in his first five NHL games. “They’ve made it so easy on all of us. At the same time, it is nice to have some familiar faces, guys that we’ve played with quite a bit.”
Young players who are called up during the season sometimes are isolated. They stay in a hotel near the team’s arena, while most of their teammates have homes or apartments and perhaps families.
When there are a few younger guys up in the NHL and staying in the same hotel, it’s often a matter of proximity and familiarity that they tend to hang out together, a group with within the larger team group.
The Penguins, however, make a point of including the younger guys.
“It’s a family,” said Blandisi, 25, who isn’t as green as the other two. He has played the equivalent of a full NHL season with three organizations, but just nine games with the Penguins this season and last. In his three games since being recalled this time around, he has a goal and an assist.
“I think I got that first-hand when I got traded here last year. I didn’t really know anybody coming into this organization, and within my first road trip I was invited to dinners with the guys, even some of the older guys I looked up to growing up my whole life. That was pretty cool. It definitely goes a long way if you get good chemistry in the dressing room and guys play for each other on the ice. I think you can see that as of late in here.”
For decades, rookies were routinely given a hard time at the NHL level. They were the victim of pranks. Years ago, they even were given an initiation rite that included the forced shaving of various parts of their body.
“There’s not so much of that anymore. I feel like we did a lot of that in college where I was, but not so much here,” said Johnson, 25, who spent two seasons as Minnesota-Duluth and played in six games last season with the Penguins but in his four recent games this time around has his first NHL goal and an assist. “I think everything’s a lot more equal here.”
So Penguins rookies aren’t always left to fend for themselves at mealtime or when there is a social activity.
“They’re very open to letting guys come with them whatever they’re doing and inviting guys with them,” Johnson said. “That’s a big part of a team’s success, I think, is having that camaraderie and having guys welcome guys with open arms. I think it’s huge.”
It’s probably no surprise to those who have paid any attention that one of the driving forces behind the inclusion is the Penguins’ captain and top player.
Sidney Crosby has long had the reputation for reaching out to newcomers – whether it’s a veteran just acquired by trade or signing, or a teenager just drafted – with a welcome text.
Winger Jared McCann, traded to the Penguins along with Nick Bjugstad during last season, has said Crosby helped them feel included and comfortable by inviting them to a team social gathering at his house shortly after the trade.
If Crosby is reaching out to young players who were just recalled and making them feel included, it’s an example his teammates are sure to follow.
“Guys treat you with respect no matter whether you’re a rookie or a veteran or whatever, I think that’s really important to having team success,” Johnson said.