Elias Pettersson, Ilya Mikheyev, Rick Tocchet, Sam Lafferty, Vancouver Canucks

From Bottom-6 to Canucks’ Top Line: Sam Lafferty’s Journey

In what I thought was a funny interview on Hockey Night in Canada, Scott Oake asked the Vancouver Canucks’ Sam Lafferty how he moved up from a bottom-six player to someone who was able to play on the team’s first line. While Lafferty took a bit of a double take, he answered the question by doing a bit of hockey talk when he said he tries to contribute and play his own game wherever he was placed in the team’s lineup. 

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When the camera shot back to the Hockey Night panel, Kevin Bieksa said what many people thought. He commented that Oake had just asked Lafferty how he got so good for someone who wasn’t supposed to be – or something to that effect: I can’t recall the exact words. Ironically, both Oake and Bieksa had a point. Who knew Lafferty could show so well through 25 games of the 2023-24 season?

Lafferty Came to the Canucks from the Maple Leafs

In the second week of October, Lafferty was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Canucks in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Two things initiated the move. First, his roster spot with the Maple Leafs was in jeopardy due to concerns about his $1.15 million salary. That’s relatively small, but since the Maple Leafs were weighing and measuring which players would make their roster, that extra $340,000 seemed to make a world of difference.

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Second, Lafferty faced tough competition for a spot on the team, especially considering the financial constraints. If he didn’t make the roster, the potential existed that he would be claimed on waivers and the Maple Leafs would lose him for nothing. It was better to get something for him instead of drawing a blank. 

Sam Lafferty Toronto Maple Leafs
Sam Lafferty, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

On this point, Oake was correct. Lafferty, a 28-year-old forward who is known for his speed and his versatility, was expected to at best play a bottom-six role with the Canucks. The only hint that he could score was that he put up 12 goals and 27 points in 70 games last season (but that still isn’t setting the world on fire.) Before last season, he had never scored more than six goals in a season (which is the exact number he’s totalled so far in 2023-24).

Bieksa Asked a Key Question: How Did Sam Lafferty Get So Good?

In short, Lafferty’s journey with the Canucks this season has been marked by his ability to play both a depth position and keep up with the top-line players on the team. He initially occupied a bottom-six role but soon showed his ability to contribute higher up in the lineup.

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In early November, Lafferty found himself listed on the Canucks’ first line, replacing Andrei Kuzmenko. This move proved significant and Lafferty capitalized on that promotion by scoring a crucial third-period goal in a 5-1 victory over the Seattle Kraken. This game marked the beginning of a productive span for Lafferty, who then put up a point in four of his next five games. He was beginning to surprise with his offensive success. 

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As the season progressed, Lafferty continued to show offensive skill. He scored a goal and added an assist in the team’s convincing 10-1 win over the San Jose Sharks, marking his first multiple-point game of the season and showing his value and growing impact. Although he was primarily playing as a depth forward on the bottom-six lines, Lafferty’s steady contributions made him a valuable asset for the Canucks.

Lafferty’s scoring streak was extended when he scored a shorthanded goal in a 3-1 victory against the Sharks in late November. He was producing regularly, was still lining up in a bottom-six role, and was getting tons of time on the penalty kill. By the way, Lafferty’s goal was the game-winner. 

November also saw Lafferty working to adjust to playing center because Pius Suter was out with an injury. The positional change made little difference and Lafferty contributed an assist in a 5-2 loss to the Avalanche. His ability to seamlessly transition between positions had earned the trust of head coach Rick Tocchet.

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As the Canucks entered December, Lafferty’s performance reached new heights. In a 4-3 win over the Flames, he scored a goal and added an assist, dishing out two hits and finishing with a plus-2 rating. Lafferty was making a consistent positive impact on games and covering for players who were injured. And, he was doing it across the lineup – from top line to bottom line. 

Where Lafferty Stands Right Now in the Canucks’ Plans

Throughout his first season with the Canucks, Lafferty’s statistics reflect a well-rounded contribution. He now has put up six goals, six assists, 31 hits, and an impressive plus-13 rating in 25 games. His plus-minus rating, in particular, shows his effectiveness at both ends of the ice.

What has been most striking has been Lafferty’s ability to elevate his game when placed on the top line alongside center Elias Pettersson. It helps that he can keep up with Ilya Mikheyev, who plays on Pettersson’s left wing. 

Ilya Mikheyev Vancouver Canucks
Ilya Mikheyev, Vancouver Canucks (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What Lafferty is showing is his ability to hang in there with elite talents who possess elite speed, and the chemistry displayed on this line bodes well for the Canucks. This makes it easier for Tocchet to fill out the team when injuries occur.

As the season unfolds, Lafferty’s story with the Canucks is far from finished. He was thought to be a speedy, hard-working, blue-collar player. Perhaps it’s time for Canucks fans to revise that look and change Lafferty’s shirt to one with a white collar.

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