It doesn’t seem that long ago. Pittsburgh Penguins locker room leader Chris Kunitz politely scolded everyone for calling his new teammates “the AHL guys.” After a couple of days of reporters asking questions about the influx of new guys from the farm team, Kunitz reminded everyone that they were no longer AHL players because they were in the NHL now. Those young players were Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl.
Those players carved out careers for themselves after getting a chance to play because of injuries. And now Sam Lafferty leads the next crew of formerly hopefully former AHL players desperate to stick at the NHL level.
The Penguins had a pretty good find back in 2016. Those young legs were unleashed on an unsuspecting NHL and sometimes on an unsuspecting locker room which didn’t yet know what to make of itself. As the 2015-16 Penguins searched for identity like Kerouac hitting the open road, the speed and desperation of the kids to earn a job was contagious.
Eventually, those players won their fight to stay in the show. Lafferty and fellow rookie Adam Johnson are doing the same.
“I think this has become a young players league, and if you look around the league, there’s a lot of players who are inexperienced that get put in big situations,” Sullivan said on Thursday when PHN asked about managing the young guys in the lineup. “We’ve done that here over the past few years with a lot of players who played in a high-stakes environment.”
It may be splitting hairs, but the Pittsburgh Penguins youth and speed which lifted the Stanley Cup in 2016 is a big reason why the league is now a “young players league.” Opponents followed.
For Lafferty, he has quickly broken from the ranks of organizational depth to NHL prospect and now to NHL player. He did it by shining with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins last season, then having an outstanding training camp this season. Lafferty forced his way into the conversation with speed, tenacity, and surprising offensive production.
The Hollidaysburg, PA native was the Penguins fourth-round choice in 2014. However, fourth-rounders are not guaranteed entry into the NHL. More often than not, they toil in the minors, riding buses and dropping meal money on bad food at turnpike rest stops. But Lafferty is making a case for an NHL paycheck even after injured players return to the Penguins lineup.
Lafferty has been killing penalties and been deployed on the ice with the opponent’s net empty and the game on the line. He and Johnson with Joseph Blandisi, who are all on emergency recalls, have drawn praise from coaches, too.
“These guys have shown they can come in and have an impact on the game. Our fourth line had three goals (Saturday) but they did more than that,” Sullivan said. “They’ve done more than that. They can all skate, they defended hard, they helped us get momentum on the forecheck. We put them in some defensize zone situations against some of their top people and they did a good job defending.”
Lafferty has plus speed and has been an aggressive forechecker. He has also been putting the puck in the net. One goal begot two after he scored an empty netter Saturday in Minnesota, then scored two goals on Sunday in Winnipeg.
Johnson scored his first NHL goal Saturday when he buried a rebound chance which originated from Lafferty.
“It makes it easier when you’re getting out there every few shifts. I think we had a good night as a line. We were playing well defensively, and that led to some good chances,” Johnson said Saturday.
Few More Weeks
The Penguins rookies have a few more weeks before players such as Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, or perhaps Bryan Rust began returning from injuries. In those few weeks, they’ll have a chance to prove their value.
Just like Rust, Sheary, and Kuhnhackl before them, the Penguins kids are kicking at the door to the NHL. Sports can be fickle. A player who proves his worth can push aside others in front of him on the depth chart. The Penguins once benefitted from the young players and their need for the puck and their need to stay in the NHL. It helped lift the team.
Last week the Pittsburgh Penguins won three of four games. And it’s not the first time the Penguins won games with young players who weren’t part of their opening night lineup. It’s worked out pretty well before.