Buffalo is Sam Lafferty’s fifth NHL team. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres newcomer Sam Lafferty enjoyed career season after trade

BUFFALO – Sabres center Sam Lafferty’s first three NHL teams utilized him in a checking role, deploying him for faceoffs in enemy territory for a whopping 73.7 percent of his zone starts.

Then last year, after the Vancouver Canucks acquired Lafferty, 29, from the Toronto Maple Leafs days before the season, they gave him a dual role.

For the first time in his five-year career, he had more offensive zone starts than defensive starts (51.3 to 48.7). He responded by scoring a career-high 13 goals for a deep Canucks team that ranked fifth in scoring.

Of course, the Sabres might deploy Lafferty, who could anchor the fourth line following Ryan McLeod’s acquisition, differently than the Canucks. It wouldn’t be surprising if his defensive zone starts reach the 70 percent mark again.

Lafferty, who last Monday signed a two-year, $4 million contract in free agency, knows he will be relied on heavily as a defensive presence.

“Just the versatility wherever the team needs me, I’m willing and able to be put in those situations,” he said on a Zoom call last Wednesday. “I think I could definitely help with the penalty kill and just bring my speed and energy every single night. I think it’s kind of wherever I’m placed is where I’m comfortable.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Lafferty, having recorded 191 hits last year, looks comfortable playing the gritty game the Sabres want to display next season under coach Lindy Ruff. The Brown University product’s hit total ranked third on the Canucks. The Sabres did not have a forward register more than Jordan Greenway’s 141 hits.

The Sabres signed their early offseason additions – Lafferty, wingers Beck Malenstyn and Jason Zucker and defenseman Dennis Gilbert – to transform them into a heavier team.

“That’s one of the things Lindy’s talked about, is just how we want to play as a group and just being hard to play against, and it starts with playing hard in our own end and tracking back hard,” said Lafferty, who grew up in Pennsylvania.

Lafferty, who has also played for the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, enjoyed his time with the Canucks, perhaps the NHL’s biggest surprise last season.

They earned 109 points during the regular season, a 26-point improvement over 2022-23, and grabbed a 3-2 series lead over the Edmonton Oilers in their second-round playoff series. The Oilers, of course, lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to the Florida Panthers.

“The team had a great training camp and everyone was on the same page with the systems and how we were trying to play,” Lafferty said of the Canucks. “I think there was just collective buy-in. Everyone was on the same page. The message was pretty simple about how we were trying to play, and everyone bought in and everyone was accountable to one another for that standard.

“So I think once we gained some momentum, we started gaining confidence. I think we were just able to sustain that throughout playing the right way, starting in our own end and just the details all over the ice.”

The memories of his recent playoff runs – he also played nine games in 2023 for Toronto – are seared in Lafferty’s head.

“I still get goosebumps thinking about playing in some of those buildings, Toronto and especially this year being in Vancouver, I’ve never heard an arena that loud,” he said. “I can tell Buffalo is a place where I remember as a kid seeing the teams that had a lot of success in the 2000s, and you can just tell the city really gets behind the team and is really craving playoff hockey around here.”

While Rochester Americans assistant coach Nathan Paetsch spent parts of five seasons with the Sabres during Ruff’s first tenure, he played just 157 games.

Paetsch, a defenseman who moonlighted as a winger, spent a lot of time in the press box. As he watched the action from above the ice, he said he learned how often Ruff got the best of the Sabres’ opponent.

“I just felt like night in, night out, he was outcoaching the other team,” Paetsch said following last Wednesday’s session of development camp. “He’s done it for a long time. He just has this composure, knowledge, because he’s seen it, he’s done. I’m so excited for his to work with this group. I think there are big things coming.”

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