Blackhawks’ Sam Lafferty making immediate impact with speed, energy

Reunited with longtime friend Riley Stillman in Chicago, Lafferty has kept opponents “on their toes” in his first eight games.

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Sam Lafferty has slid into a sizable initial role with the Blackhawks.

Sam Lafferty has slid into a sizable initial role with the Blackhawks.

David Zalubowski/AP

Long before either made it to the NHL, Sam Lafferty and Riley Stillman met and bonded while working with a Phoenix-based trainer.

This winter, with Lafferty looking for a change of scenery after a rough start with the Penguins, that friendship helped lead him to the Blackhawks.

“We hang out quite a bit,” Lafferty said recently. “We’re really good friends off the ice. It has definitely made my transition to Chicago that much easier.”

The Penguins and Lafferty first talked about the possibility of a trade in November once it became clear that he wasn’t a great fit on their roster.

The parties ended up “just waiting for the right time” — which turned out to be early January in a swap for Alex Nylander — but Lafferty’s agent, Pete Rutili, had told him from the start the Hawks were a “possible really good fit.” 

That allowed Lafferty to reach out to Stillman — whom he still spends most summers training with back in Phoenix — for some inside intel.

“He just told me, ‘The guys are great, and they’re trying to build something here,’ ” Lafferty said. “It was something I was just excited to hopefully be a part of.”

Although Lafferty was a hometown product for the Penguins, having grown up less than two hours away in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, he wasn’t heartbroken to leave.

It had been a “challenging” season there, and most of his family now lives in Montana, a significantly easier flight destination from Chicago.

And Lafferty has clicked quickly with the Hawks — even with Stillman sidelined for another two to three weeks with an injured left shoulder.

Despite picking up only one point in his first eight games with the Hawks, Lafferty has demonstrated his elite skating and strong work ethic, and interim coach Derek King has grown comfortable using him in a second-line role the last few weeks.

“It’s that speed and energy,” King said Saturday. “[He] bangs bodies, pushes the other team back. He keeps them on their toes, too. He’s like a bigger version of [Brandon] Hagel, [albeit] maybe not quite as skilled. . . . I like him. I could use a couple more players like him and Hagel.”

Added Ryan Carpenter on Sunday: “[He brings] a lot of speed. He’s really fast out there and creates a lot with his feet and works really hard. . . . He definitely pushes back the ‘D’ and wins a lot of pucks, which is nice. It creates a lot of space.”

Since his debut Jan. 13, Lafferty leads the Hawks with a remarkable 65.0% high-danger scoring-chance ratio at even strength and ranks second among team forwards with a 52.8% overall scoring-chance ratio.

He has become a key part of the penalty kill, too, leading team forwards in PK ice time since Jan. 13 with an average of 2:18 per game. It has helped that the Hawks’ PK system is “pretty similar” to the Penguins’.

He’s a pending unrestricted free agent this summer. An impressive second half of the season could convince the Hawks that Lafferty, who turns 27 in March, is worth re-signing.

“It has been awesome, just [being] given a lot of opportunity,” he said. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and play to my strengths as much as I can. It has been really fun for me.”

NOTE: Ex-Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton will serve as Canada’s coach at the Olympics after Claude Julien, for whom Colliton was to be an assistant, fractured his ribs during a training-camp accident in Switzerland.

“That’s great for him,” said Derek King, who added they’ve exchanged occasional texts since the coaching change.

“That’ll be nice for him to get back into things, and he’ll do a good job.”

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