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All aboard! The Sam Lafferty hype train is about to leave the station

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Should we pump the breaks after Sam Lafferty’s really good scrimmage performance?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

There’s no doubt one of the more noticeable players yesterday in the Penguins intra-squad scrimmage — and best players on the rink for that matter — was forward Sam Lafferty.

But let’s get real. No one noticed Brian Dumoulin. Or Marcus Pettersson. It’s not a showcase for defensemen. There’s no intensity defending the net or real battling going on in a scrimmage when everyone is on the same team.

It’s dangerous to read too much into an NHL practice. Even an important one when the team is gearing up to play in the playoffs.

That said, Lafferty was a visible player. He was all over the ice. Showcased his strengths, like a burst of speed. He’s a right handed shot that is responsible defensively as an individual player, and can skate well and cover a lot of ground around the ice.

Lafferty also scored a goal in a scrimmage broadcast on the internet. Also dished off a nice pass for Jake Guentzel to score another.

All of that was bound to draw attention. And not without merit. But, at this point, let the hype train begin!

From the Penguins official website:

In what could be viewed as some impressive foreshadowing, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan praised rookie forward Sam Lafferty on Friday afternoon for his positive attitude and approach that he brings to the rink every single day.

“He’s a motivated kid,” Sullivan said. “He wants to make the Pittsburgh Penguins roster and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”

That was certainly evident with Lafferty’s impressive performance in Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, as he was the most noticeable player on the ice - scoring one goal and setting up at least one other.

At one point, Phil Bourque - providing commentary on the live stream alongside Josh Getzoff - turned to his broadcasting partner and said, “Whose name has been called more than Sam Lafferty?”

From Josh Yohe at The Athletic:

Lafferty was outstanding. I literally noticed him on every shift. This is a young player who wants to see playing time in the postseason, and I suspect he will. He won’t be in the top 12 if the Penguins are entirely healthy, but at some point, they won’t be. His speed was very much on display all week and especially was evident during the scrimmage.

Lafferty was at his best during October, and that’s how he looked during the past week. Fast. Physical. Effective.

Definitely strikes me as a keeper.

And from the Post-Gazette an article titled “Penguins might just need Sam Lafferty to play a critical role after all”:

Making a splash is nothing new for Lafferty. In his third NHL game this season, on October 14th, he scored a goal and added two more assists in a 7-4 win in Minnesota. The next game in Winnipeg he scored two goals.

But then, just like that, he went ice cold, recording no goals only two assists in his next 15 games. He then scored a goal on November 30th in St. Louis and got an assist the next game, at home against the Blues and then followed it up with zero points in the next 15 games.

All in all, Lafferty scored 6G+7A in 53 NHL games this season, respectable in a limited role, but the periods of extreme doubt after small flashes stand out, because he was excellent while it lasted, no better than in that two game stretch in October where he recorded five points in two games (and then had eight points in the other 51 games).

Saturday was a small flash. Lafferty was brilliant.

Now the issue to weigh is how long he can maintain it. If the Sam Lafferty of Saturday can hold up for weeks and months on end, he isn’t and shouldn’t come out of the lineup. Even a stacked lineup like the forward group the Penguins have.

But, the problem is the other times. Overall this season among Penguin forwards (minimum 200 minutes) Laffery had the lowest out of 14 forwards with a Corsi For% at 46.45%. He also had the lowest xGF% at 47.09%, narrowly even worse than Alex Galchenyuk. Lafferty’s scoring chances% was also the lowest among the 14 forwards.

It’s clear when Lafferty is good, he’s a really good player. The problem with what his results show over a long sample is that for every two or three good games, then comes 15-20 really dreadful ones. For that reason — especially among a team that might not find space for a player like Evan Rodrigues — is that Lafferty ought to become lost in the shuffle.

So while Lafferty was excellent and awesome in a burst on Saturday, don’t count on it lasting. He’s got a resume and that resume says he is a replacement level player. The Pens have far better options on the bottom-six who are more consistent. Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev had about opposite advanced stats than Laffery, tipping the ice in the Pens’ favor and shutting down the opponent’s offense with much more success.

But, at worst, Lafferty is an exciting young player with speed and enthusiasm that could be tapped to offer something in case of injury.

That has use for organizational depth for a contending team, but overall Lafferty has already shown what he is, for better or worse. A player with some wheels and can be noticeable, but also one that isn’t really adept or built right now to be an everyday option on an already stacked contending team.

The other unknown factor is that we live in a pandemic world. Patric Hornqvist has yet to take part in training camp. Almost all the other depth forwards, like first round pick Samuel Poulin, are also sidelined after secondary contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. In this atmosphere, any player can disappear from the playing ranks at any time.

For that reason, Lafferty may yet prove to be a useful piece of depth for Pittsburgh. However, even though he flashed in one scrimmage, there’s plenty of data to show he shouldn’t be more than a depth option for the team at this point.