Consider it time off for good behaviour.
Sam Lafferty didn’t participate in a sparsely-attended optional skate Sunday at the University of B.C. The versatile Vancouver Canucks forward could afford a day away from the grind because he has not only been better than advertised, he’s checking crucial boxes for head coach Rick Tocchet.
It’s not just five points (3-2) in the last four games. It’s how Lafferty has taken what works so well as a bottom-six contributor and disturber — forechecking, hitting and penalty killing — and applied it to an effective line with Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev.
On Saturday at Rogers Arena, he scored the opening goal in a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes by taking an agitating approach. With Pettersson in flight with puck possession, he created a shot lane against two defenders by barrelling through a Sebastian Aho pick and by Jacob Slavin. And when Pettersson unleashed a heavy wrist shot, he was there to spin off setting a screen and deposited the rebound.
“That whole play was a systems play,” Tocchet recalled Sunday. “We played fast. We got the puck in Petey’s hands and he makes a great skilled play at the blue-line. And that’s when you need somebody to drive the net. When you get in trouble is when you play on the perimeter and that’s easier to check.
“Those are big goals for us because it’s middle drive with a rebound. Hopefully, other players take a look at that type of goal.”
One would be winger Andrei Kuzmenko.
He continues to struggle and is languishing on the fourth line. He has but four goals in 25 games, and everything he needs to do to gain position and finish hasn’t been there on a consistent basis. He did get to the net in the first period Saturday and had two whacks at a loose puck on the goal line, but that was it.
Kuzmenko played 10:36 and had just three third-period shifts as Tocchet shortened his bench. He didn’t use the winger in the final 9:25. By comparison, Lafferty had 10 shifts in the final period and was out in the last two minutes to protect the lead because he has gained Tocchet’s trust.
“Sometimes, you put a guy like Lafferty up in a role like that to see if he can stay consistent.” added Tocchet. “It’s hard to do all the time. You can get in that role and become fancy. I did that as a player on a top line and had to remind myself that that’s not my job. Lafferry is old enough (28) to know he’s got to do those things nine times out of 10.”
Lafferty is doing just that. As much as Tocchet needs Kuzmenko to get to the net and find his scoring touch, he needs to reward Lafferty’s effort.
“He’s making my job very difficult,” said Tocchet. “He’ll be there (top six) on Tuesday night because if he continues to do that stuff, how do you take him off that line? He adds a lot of speed and helps Petey and Mikheyev has had his best couple of games in a month. That line is finding its legs.”
Canucks vs Lightning
Tuesday, 7 p.m., Rogers Arena
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Lafferty is proving a late bloomer. The Hollidaysburg, Penn. native grew up a Pittsburgh fan and was drafted by that club in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft. His 210 games have been split between Pittsburgh, Chicago and Toronto, and being acquired from the Maple Leafs in early October for a 2024 fifth-round pick, is a good deal.
Lafferty is a cap fit on an expiring US$1.150 million cap hit and may warrant an extension because of his versatility.
It’s the type of goals that Lafferty is scoring that can extend career longevity. He’s getting to the net and establishing position to set screens and is there for deflections and rebounds.
“There are a lot of goals like that and he’s finding them,” said Tocchet.
None of this should be surprising. Lafferty grew up admiring the Penguins and especially captain Sidney Crosby.
“It was Mario (Lemieux) when I was first getting into hockey, and Sid is my favourite player,” Lafferty told Postmedia. “You learn an incredible amount, not just being on the ice, but his daily habits. It’s his attitude and how he works every single day.
“It’s really contagious and everybody who has come through that organization would say the same thing. It wasn’t so much advice, it’s how he handles himself and how he treats people. His commitment to the team is something I still think about a lot and how impressive that is.”
OVERTIME — On Friday, Linus Karlsson was sent to the AHL for more playing time, and with Pius Suter nearing return from injury. On Saturday, Karlsson scored in the first period and had three shots in a 4-2 loss to the Coachella Valley Firebirds.
Said Tocchet: “It’s the pace. For him to get games and practise with us is huge for our minor-league system. I like that we can call players up and maybe get them a game and send them back down. They get a (NHL) taste and Linus is that type of guy.”
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