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2015-16 Flyers season review: Position change might be secret to unlocking Scott Laughton

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Scott Laughton's 2015-16 season was a mixed bag of flashes of offensive upside, inconsistent defensive play, and progressively-declining ice time. But could a late-season position shift be the answer to developing him?

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

It's now been over four years since former Flyers GM Paul Holmgren stepped up to the podium at the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh and selected forward Scott Laughton with the 20th overall selection. Since then, Laughton has spent parts of three seasons with the Flyers, starting with a five-game stint just months after the draft and culminating with this season, which saw Laughton make 71 regular season appearances and play in three playoff games.

Still, the 22-year old forward has yet to carve out a defined role on the Flyers. In what was essentially his first full year in the NHL, Laughton was scratched on multiple occasions, bounced from line-to-line, changed positions, and even failed to crack the lineup for the start of the postseason.

Laughton acknowledged during his exit interviews after the season that his lineup spot is far from guaranteed entering training camp in September. But he remains just 22 with a first-round pick pedigree. Even in a year that can be best described as a mixed bag, Laughton did show some positive signs, especially in the wake of a shift from center to the wing.

Scott Laughton

Background:

Position C/W
Age 22 (5/30/1994)
Contract Status $863,333 per year through 2016-17

2015-16 Regular Season Numbers:

What does Laughton bring to the table?

Scott Laughton may still be a young player, but after watching him play in over 100 NHL games, there are some clear observations that can already be made regarding his skillset.

To start, Laughton remained an above-average skater even while moving up to the highest level of hockey. He possesses a strong first step, and breakaway speed once he gets moving. For a player who was sometimes categorized as a "jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none" type during his junior career, Laughton has developed into a plus skating NHL forward.

And while his unimpressive raw goal totals so far in his career may not show it, Laughton can really fire the puck when he and his teammates can get it into the offensive zone. One of his most impressive goals in the 2015-16 season saw Laughton corral the puck in the left faceoff circle before sniping a top corner shot past Henrik Lundqvist, probably the best goaltender in the world. It may just be one highlight, but it's hard for a player to luck into beating Lundqvist from an angle with no screen aiding him.

In fact, Laughton's scoring totals in 2015-16 showed real promise, even though 21 points in 71 games certainly doesn't jump off the page. Laughton's ice time was limited, as he played mostly on the third and fourth lines at even strength and rarely received power play time.

In those limited 5-on-5 minutes, however, Laughton averaged 1.83 points per 60 minutes, which ranked 76th among all NHL forwards who played at least 500 minutes per Corsica.Hockey. Since there are essentially 90 "first-line" scorers in a given NHL season (30 teams, 3 players per line), Laughton produced 5v5 points like a low-end first liner in 2015-16.

When just looking at primary points (goals + primary assists), Laughton drops a bit but still ranks 117th, placing more in the still-strong territory of a second line scorer. At least in the offensive zone, Scott Laughton showcased real potential.

His performance on the defensive side of the ice and in driving play was less impressive. Used primarily at center during the first four and a half months of the season, Laughton struggled when handling the puck in the defensive zone. One of the key roles of a center is to function as the "low-man" on breakouts, providing an outlet for his defensemen in the defensive zone in the event that a longer pass to a winger or a skating lane does not materialize.

Among Flyers who spent extended time at center, Laughton posted the highest defensive zone turnover rate, coughing up the puck on 12.98% of his touches at 5-on-5. In addition, he could only generate controlled exits on 31.22% of his touches, another low among Flyers centers.

As a result, it's not terribly surprising that the Flyers struggled to win the even strength shot attempts battle with Laughton on the ice, since he proved unable to regularly help his defensemen move the puck up ice efficiently. When Laughton skated at 5v5 this season, Philadelphia generated 47.26% of the overall shot attempts (adjusted for score via Corsica.Hockey). But with him on the bench, the Flyers were in the black, generating 50.70% of the overall attempts. That's a -3.43% Corsi relative to his teammates, a mark more appropriate for a fourth liner rather than a player trusted to put the puck in the net alongside gifted linemates.

Other full-season puck possession metrics are similarly uninspiring. His Corsi For% RelTM (via stats.hockeyanalysis.com), which essentially measures how a player's teammates perform from a Corsi standpoint with him and then away from him (weighted for time on ice), is a poor -3.4 percent, mirroring that of Ryan White. His performance in 5-on-5 Expected Goals (which weights each on-ice shot attempt for location and quality) is slightly better, but still falls on the negative side of the ledger at -0.54% relative to his teammates.

Basically, Laughton scored at an impressive rate, but his shortcomings on the other side of the puck resulted in the Flyers spending too much time in the defensive zone while he was on the ice. There's value in those results, but they're certainly not what Philadelphia was hoping to see when they drafted Laughton in the first round back in 2012. Given his shortcomings, it's no real surprise that Laughton has failed to carve out true NHL job security yet.

Is wing the answer?

Laughton's issues seem mostly limited to the defensive side of his game. As noted, he has the skillset to be a dangerous weapon while on the attack, but so far, his issues with decision-making and puck control in his own zone have outweighed the benefits of his scoring talent.

One potential solution? Move him to a position with less defensive zone responsibilities.

Starting on February 19th against the Montreal Canadiens and lasting through the remainder of the year, Scott Laughton almost exclusively played on the wing. The thinking behind the move was obvious -- decrease Laughton's puck carrying responsibilities on the breakout, and free him up to use his plus speed to stretch opposing defenses to quickly move up ice.

Laughton immediately looked comfortable in the new position. For example, let's take a look at this goal against the Arizona Coyotes on February 27th, a little over a week after switching from center to wing.

Throughout the play, Nick Cousins is stationed near the red line, ready to provide an outlet if a Flyers defenseman is able to retrieve the puck. Laughton, on the other hand, is positioned high in the defensive zone, in the left-hand corner of the screen, essentially waiting for possession to change and for the puck to move up ice.

As soon as Mark Streit gains control of the puck, Laughton already makes the turn to receive a potential pass. Then, once Cousins (the center) takes the initial pass from Streit, Laughton is already off to the races, behind the Coyotes defense and in perfect position to gather an alley-oop pass to create a breakaway.

It seems like a simple play. But Laughton needed to possess the offensive instincts to guess that Philadelphia would successfully move the puck up ice, and be subtle enough in his movements to not alert Arizona that he had found a soft spot behind them. But most importantly, Laughton would not even have had the chance to be the recipient of that Cousins pass had he been the center on his line. Instead, he would have been in Cousins' spot, expected to settle into open area in the low slot and then make a smart pass up ice.

As his zone exit microstatistics hinted, Laughton simply could not thrive in that defensive zone puck handling role last season. Playing the wing gave him the opportunity to utilize his strengths (speed, offensive instincts) while minimizing the impact of his weaknesses (finding soft spots in traffic, accurate passing under pressure).

By the eye test, Laughton appeared to be a much more effective player at wing. And in this case, the statistics do nothing to poke holes in our theory. In fact, all of Laughton's advanced statistics improved dramatically after the position change.

Time Period October 8 - February 14 (Pre-Position Switch) February 19 - April 10 (Post-Position Switch)
5v5 Time on Ice 480.3 176.9
Corsi For Percentage 44.45% 54.67%
Corsi For Relative to Teammates negative-5.3% plus-1.31%
Expected Goals Percentage 44.19% 61.66%
Expected Goals Relative to Teammates negative-5.11% plus-11.59%

177 minutes isn't the largest sample to analyze when it comes to Laughton's time at the wing position. And there are other theories that could explain his advanced statistical surge, such as a team-wide improvement in play starting in mid-February, the promotion of Cousins, and increased familiarity in Dave Hakstol's system.

But the gap between Laughton's performance at center and his results at wing is staggering. The young forward went from being a liability relative to his teammates, both in raw on-ice attempts and weighted shots, to helping his team produce far better results with him on the ice versus when he was on the bench. It's certainly possible that there could be something here.

Manually tracked neutral zone statistics hint that Laughton's advanced statistical jump was almost entirely driven by improved defensive play. Laughton became a bit more efficient offensively, but the most substantial fix came in the team's ability to limit opponent entries into their own zone with Laughton on the ice.

Time Period Pre-Position Switch Post-Position Switch
Individual Expected Goals per 60 0.57 0.68
Individual Shot Attempts per 60 11.99 14.25
Individual Entries per 60 18.97 19.37
On-Ice Entries For per 60 74.02 74.65
On-Ice Entries Against per 60 75.29 68.31

Laughton shot the puck a bit more following the position shift, and in turn, increased his individual expected goals rate. But he created offensive zone entries at about the same rate, and the Flyers generated about the same amount of total entries with Laughton on the ice, regardless of whether he played center or wing.

But when looking at entry prevention, we see a dramatic change. With Laughton at center, Philadelphia allowed more entries than they created. Yet when Laughton moved to wing, the Flyers generated six more entries per 60 minutes than they allowed, a major improvement in defensive efficiency. An inability to cleanly transition play from defense to offense with Laughton at center can help explain this, as shoddy exit attempts may have often turned into blind dump-outs into the neutral zone, quickly allowing opponents to jump right back on the attack and create additional entries.

Interestingly enough, Laughton did not become more efficient individually following the position shift in handling the puck in the defensive zone. While his turnover percentage went down a bit (13.26% pre-position change, 12.05% post-change), the latter number still isn't particularly impressive. Also, he actually posted a lower controlled exit percentage (31.90% versus 29.92%) following the shift.

So Laughton didn't miraculously become better at defensive zone puck moving just because his position changed. Instead, his responsibilities simply became less demanding, so that the Flyers' transition play was no longer so dependent upon a player currently limited in his defensive zone capabilities. By the numbers, it appears that the experiment worked.

Conclusion

Following the 2015-16 season, Scott Laughton described his year as "okay," which was a fair (if a bit generous) evaluation. For the first time, Laughton did spend an entire year at the NHL level and easily set new career highs in goals and points. In addition, after accounting for his limited ice time, Laughton actually scored at the rate of a forward worthy of minutes on an NHL team's top two lines. His season definitely came with bright spots.

But his inconsistent defensive zone play cannot be ignored. Basically handed the center role on the Flyers' third line to start the season, Laughton struggled to aid in transitioning play from defense to offense via the breakout, which contributed to very unimpressive on-ice shot attempt differentials at 5-on-5. It also was probably a big reason why Laughton's ice time progressively declined throughout the season, culminating in regular scratchings in March and April after Sam Gagner and Nick Cousins leapt him on the depth chart.

A quick look at Laughton's advanced stats via a HERO Chart would lead one to believe that at this point in his career, he is a play-driving liability best suited for fourth line duty who can bring some offensive upside to the table. But that is an incomplete analysis. Following a shift from center to the wing, Laughton's advanced play driving metrics dramatically improved over the final two months of the season, providing hope that could be the formula to unlocking his full potential.

At center, Laughton's current defensive zone weaknesses are glaring and detrimental to the success of all of his teammates on the ice with him. But at wing, the impact of that weakness is dulled, while Laughton's strengths of speed, shooting, and offensive awareness become more apparent.

That's not to say that Laughton can't improve his defensive zone play as he gains more NHL experience. The 22-year clearly possesses NHL-caliber puck skills, and maybe with more time, he'll become more accustomed to the speed of opponents at the highest level of hockey and make quicker decisions with the puck even while under heavy forechecking pressure.

But the Flyers are in the business of winning hockey games in the here and now, and Laughton's current skillset seems best suited for the wing. At this point, an extension of the audition at that new position is the smartest move both for the team, and for Laughton's future development.

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

Laughton

Neutral zone data via BSH's Charlie O'Connor; all other data via war-on-ice.com unless otherwise noted.