At this time not even a year ago, Scott Laughton was, by most accounts, the Flyers' top prospect outside of the NHL, and there was simply no debating that he was the team's best forward prospect. We had him sitting up at No. 3 in our 25 under 25 last summer, only behind two known NHL mainstays in Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn. He was coming off an OHL season in which he was voted to the first-team All-OHL team, ahead of some randos named "Connor McDavid" and "Sam Bennett". The future was looking pretty bright for Laughton.
Fast forward to today, and one could argue that a bit of the shine has worn off of Laughton. While he's obviously still highly thought-of by most (as is evidenced by his still-quite-high spot in our ranking), much more attention in the Flyers' prospect corps has been paid to the team's quintet of high-end defensive prospects -- and with the Flyers moving up to get Travis Konecny last June, Laughton's unquestioned position as the team's best forward prospect is very much now up for debate. Couple that with a first pro season that was fine, but not scintillating, and you're at where Laughton is now.
The strange thing about all of that? Not a whole lot has really changed for the young center.
Yes, like multiple others in this pipeline, Laughton's slight drop in the rankings has likely been fueled more by the hype and development of multiple other recent newcomers into the system. He's three years removed from his draft year, and may not quite have the shiny-new-toy-type appeal that some of the other guys on this list have. He may not have taken a huge leap forward this past season, but what we saw from him gave the indication that the Flyers, at the very least, have another NHL forward on their hands.
Laughton came up to the NHL in November, following that weird Claude Giroux non-injury situation. The Flyers were clearly not afraid to give him a top-9 role on the team -- though he was initially pinned with R.J. Umberger and Vincent Lecavalier when his call-up began, his three most common linemates in his NHL time last year were Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and Michael Raffl. He was also given some spot penalty kill time here and there.
For the most part, Laughton looked like he belonged as an NHLer during his time up here. His speed and aggressiveness were constantly on display. And while his overall scoring numbers -- two goals, four assists in 31 games -- were more like those of a fourth-liner than those of a top prospect, there were a number of near-misses in there, and his shooting percentage of 3.9 percent suggests that there may have just been some bad luck in there for Laughton.
In fact, between November 18 (the day Laughton was called up) and January 14, Laughton was second* among the team's forwards in shots on goal and shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, behind only Claude Giroux in both categories. If he's able to keep that level of pressure up in the future while getting a bit more ice time and burying a couple more of those attempts here and there, then it'll be that much easier to see him as a legitimate two-way threat at this level.
Unfortunately, on January 14, Laughton suffered what certainly seemed to be a concussion on a big hit by Washington's Matt Niskanen. He missed seven games with an "upper-body injury", and he visibly struggled a bit upon his return to the NHL lineup. The Flyers sent him back to Lehigh Valley in mid-February, and he'd proceed to spend the rest of the season there.
Laughton's performance at the AHL level also certainly appeared to meet expectations. His raw scoring numbers don't necessarily jump off the page -- 14 goals and 13 assists in 39 games -- but among the 49 rookies in the AHL who scored more points than him, only 10 of them scored more on a per-game basis than Laughton did. And if you look beside the month following his demotion back to the AHL (during which he may have still been dealing with the effects of that injury, though that's just speculation on my end), Laughton's scoring numbers look even better:
|Pre-promotion (thru 11/17)||13||6||5||11||0.85|
|Month following demotion (2/15 to 3/14)||10||1||2||3||0.30|
|Rest of season (3/20 to end)||16||7||6||13||0.81|
So all in all, though he isn't the shiny new toy any more and isn't necessarily grabbing everyone's attention right away, there's reason to believe Laughton's performance was more impressive than you'd think by just looking at the total numbers. Which is to say he's pretty much where we thought he'd be -- playing well against AHL competition and getting his feet wet against the NHL.
Still, it's fair to wonder what Laughton's ceiling is as a player, given his skillset. He's got good offensive instincts and vision, but may not ever have the offensive talent to be more than a 40-50 point NHLer (which, for the record, would still be very good in the right role). He's not afraid to play a physical style, but isn't that big. His best asset may be his skating, which when paired with his defensive ability should essentially promise that he'll at least be a solid shutdown defensive forward. But can he be more than that?
And, of course, there's the never-ending question of where he'll fit in the Flyers' center-heavy lineup. With Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier locked in as centers, and with a number of other guys who technically are centers but may or may not actually play there in 2015-16 (Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier, Sam Gagner, Ryan White), Laughton's path to the NHL may be blocked in the short-term unless the team is either planning on moving him to the wing or is content to use him as a fourth-line center. Which they may be, but surely they have higher long-term hopes for him than that, and they may just think getting him steady top minutes in Lehigh Valley would be a better option for his development.
If Laughton does stick with the Phantoms, it stands to reason that he should get plenty of opportunities. He and Nick Cousins were the team's top two centers last year, and should continue to be this year -- though he'll be without top AHL scorer Jason Akeson, the reinforcements that Hextall has brought in for the AHL team should help make up for that loss.
Laughton's performance as a 20-year-old in his first year as a pro was pretty good, but the team is certainly expecting him to take a step forward this year with an extra bit of pro experience under his belt. If he can stay healthy, play with the same aggressiveness that made him fun to watch during his NHL time last year, and get a little luckier, there's reason to believe he will take that step forward. And if he does, the Flyers may just have to find a place for him on their roster sooner than they'd like -- which I'm sure they'd be OK with.
* Raw data to calculate this figure obtained via war-on-ice.com.
How we voted for Scott Laughton:
Who we voted for at No. 5:
|Scott Laughton||Travis Sanheim||Shayne Gostisbehere||Travis Konecny||Travis Sanheim||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny||Robert Hagg||Samuel Morin||Ivan Provorov||Scott Laughton||Shayne Gostisbehere|