When Kyle Davidson was named the interim general manager of the Blackhawks last year, the first trade he made to impact the NHL roster didn’t make a lot of big waves. In fact, it received more tongue-and-cheek shots at Stan Bowman’s trade record than it did positive comments about Davidson’s plan.
Davidson sent forward Alex Nylander to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 5 for forward Sam Lafferty. Lafferty was a grinder who hadn’t been able to get an everyday role in Pittsburgh; Nylander was a supremely talented forward who never figured it out (still hasn’t). So the deal was viewed as the end of a failed reclamation project more than the addition of a potentially solid piece to the Blackhawks’ lineup.
Since that deal, Lafferty has proven to be a valuable asset for the Blackhawks. He had appeared in 94 regular season games in Pittsburgh over three seasons and had produced 21 points.
Inserted into the lineup in Chicago pretty much every night, Lafferty scored five goals and added six assists. He became a trusted defensive forward who brought a lot of speed and grit to the ice — exactly what the Blackhawks needed at the time.
Ironically, speed was the reason Bowman had targeted Nylander in the trade that sent Henri Jokihaju to Buffalo, but it was Lafferty — a fourth-round pick in 2014 — who showed an ability to play a functionally fast game better than Nylander, who was the eighth overall pick in his draft (2016).
The Penguins liked what Lafferty brought and he told me he even practiced as a defenseman at times, but their lineup was too full for him to get regular run. In Chicago, that optimism found an opportunity.
That work as a defenseman, a position Lafferty played at times growing up, paid dividends when he was playing for the United States at the World Championship this summer. When the US was down to four healthy defensemen on the roster, Lafferty was asked to move to the blue line.
Playing on the back end gave Lafferty a different view of the ice, and one Chicago teammate a few laughs along the way.
“[Playing as a defenseman] it in an actual game was a change in perspective,” he said. “You see the mistakes forwards make a lot more clearly. As a forward you’re always getting on the d to get you the puck and stuff like that. Seth [Jones] was on the team so I would sit next to him on the bench and right away I would start talking about the forwards and he got a good laugh out of that … You see when a forward turns a puck over in a certain area it can trap a defenseman on the ice and make the job harder.”
That perspective should pay dividends for a Blackhawks team that is looking at him to play a more important role moving forward. Not only was Lafferty the first NHL-level trade that Davidson consummated, but he was also the first NHL player to get an extension from Davidson. On April 29, Lafferty received a two-year extension with the Blackhawks — a deal that certainly gives him more assurance of an NHL role than he ever had in Pittsburgh.
But with Davidson now the permanent general manager, a new coaching staff and a load of change on the roster around him, Lafferty comes into a new season with potentially as many questions as answers. He’s thankful that the new regime has at least given him some certainty about his role and he knows what’s expected from him moving forward.
“The biggest thing is having a clear idea of what my job is going to be on this team,” Lafferty said. “My role is to bring energy every night and kill penalties and be really good defensively and chip in offense when I can.”
Davidson has made it clear that his front office values speed and compete — two things we’ve seen from Lafferty in his first half-season with the Blackhawks. He appears to be the ideal player to build a bottom six around; the addition of Colin Blackwell is another player from a similar mold. But Lafferty will now be viewed as someone the Blackhawks can trust in defensive situations.
This will be a good year to keep an eye on Lafferty’s fun, toothless smile as he cements himself as an NHL player.