Scott Laughton’s 2016-17 season couldn’t have gone much worse.
After starting the year injured, the Ontario native played just two games with the Flyers before being demoted to the Phantoms for the rest of the season on Dec. 6. Before the year, Laughton had played 107 games for the Flyers.
The shuffling around wasn’t what anyone had in mind for a player taken with the 20th pick in the 2012 draft — or one that scored 21 points the year before.
But, if there’s one thing hockey can teach, it’s that things don’t always go the way you expect them. Just ask the Vegas Golden Knights.
Laughton, though, took the demotion in stride, scoring 39 points in 60 games in the Lehigh Valley without power play time and working on his defensive game. In return, the Flyers protected the now-24 year old in the expansion draft and signed him to a two-year, $1.925 million deal.
Even with the new contract, though, the 2017-18 season was going to be a crucial one for Laughton. He responded with a career-high 10 goals, played in 81 games and showed the defensive promise that was evident in his junior career.
With a roster spot and a contract, Laughton should be able to breathe easily now, right?
It’s only the opposite. Expectations in a new role and competition has the 2018-19 season just as important for the center.
Third Line Center
Laughton’s role last year mainly consisted of fourth-line center, and late in the season, top-nine winger. With Valtteri Filppula in the fold, Laughton didn’t receive much playing time as the third-line center.
Over the summer, the Flyers let Filppula walk in free agency and didn’t sign any of the possible free agent replacements like Tyler Bozak, Derek Ryan or Riley Nash. Although it’s only August, it doesn’t look like the team will make a trade to upgrade Filppula’s vacated spot and none of the remaining free agents are a step above Laughton.
That leaves Laughton and a handful of competition for that role on the third line. Last year, Filppula, playing between the second line to start the year and the third, contributed 33 points and killed penalties while averaging 16:38 of ice time.
Laughton has the penalty killing down, had one less goal than Filppula, but contributed only 20 total points and played 11 minutes of ice time. While the points were a little low, Filppula had stronger linemates and before long into the year, some of the Flyers faithful were clamoring for a promotion for Laughton.
Plus, the season with the Phantoms last year, showed Laughton does have some proffesional scoring touch.
The Oakville native did get some time on the third line as the pivot with the Flyers last year, but it didn’t last long as coach Dave Hakstol shuffled the lines around, depending more on veterans — a trait of his.
Although it’s impossible to know how Hakstol feels now, that doesn’t seem like a great first step for Laughton. He has the most NHL experience of any third-line center tryouts, but maybe not the complete trust of the coach.
Jordan Weal could be Laughton’s biggest competition, but prospects like Morgan Frost and Mikhail Vorobyov might be possibilities too.
But even worse for Laughton, they’ll be the future in the middle of the ice.
Ron Hextall’s crowning achievement as general manager so far is the stable he’s built of prospects. There’s no weakness in any department and the future has already started with Nolan Patrick, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.
But it doesn’t end there for the Flyers. Frost and Vorobyev are at the top of the pecking order right now, but there’s also German Rubtsov, Jay O’Brien and Tanner Laczynski marinating in the prospect pool.
Bottom line for Laughton is that even if he holds off a couple prospects this year, there will be more coming.
But it’s not all bad news for Laughton. It’s likely Not every one of those prospects will become NHLers and he’s already a step ahead. Even if the offensive game doesn’t follow, he’s already a suitable defensive player. The versatility to move to the wing also helps things.
For the increasing bad news, Laughton isn’t fully guaranteed much time with the Flyers. He has just this year left on his current contract, but will still be a restricted free agent. If Frost or another center prospect makes the team, Laughton isn’t guaranteed a spot next year by any means.
Last season, Laughton had to prove that he was an NHL player. He did just that.
This year, he has to prove he’s a valuable contributor in the top nine. Lucky for the player, who has shuffled between the NHL and AHL, up and down the lineup and is still younger than 25, adversity is just another part of a hockey season.