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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Scott Laughton's up-and-down year ended with a new position

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Laughton's first full NHL season was a mixed bag in terms of on-ice performance, but a late season position switch to the wing may be the key to unlocking his potential.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Back when the Philadelphia Flyers selected Scott Laughton with the 20th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, the talk surrounding the team's newest prospect was that he projected as a two-way center with high-end defensive instincts. The optimistic scouting report comparables included prime-age Mike Richards and Selke Trophy winner John Madden, both exciting possible outcomes for Laughton.

110 games into his Flyers career, however, and it's looking like those scouts may have been a bit off in their evaluations. While Laughton certainly looks like a capable NHL player, at this stage he doesn't appear to be a defensive stalwart. In fact, his ideal role at the highest level of hockey may not even be at the center position. But that doesn't mean he can't be a valuable player -- it just means that the nature of his value might be far different than originally anticipated.

No. 6: Scott Laughton

Position: C/LW
Age: 22 (5/30/1994)
2015-16 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) - 7 G, 14 A in 71 GP
Nationality: Canadian (Oakville, ON)
Acquired Via: 2012 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 20

At training camp last year, the Flyers gave Laughton every opportunity to win a spot in the opening night lineup, and to his credit, Laughton succeeded. To kick off the season, the young forward took up the role of third line center, usually flanked by depth scoring options.

Unfortunately, Laughton did not thrive in the role.

While the then-21 year old showed flashes of talent in the offensive zone via his strong skating ability and dangerous wrist shot, it was play in his own end that proved to be Laughton's Achilles heel. A key responsibility for a center is to function as the "low man" in the defensive zone on breakouts, providing an easy outlet for his defensemen in their attempts to move the puck up ice. But Laughton consistently struggled in this area of his game.

As we noted in July, this weakness was likely dragging down the overall on-ice performance of Scott Laughton.

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.

The Flyers' continued efforts to force a square peg into a round hole when it came to Laughton and the center position was a big reason for the team's bottom-six forward issues in the season's first half. It's not a coincidence that the third line made a measurable leap when Laughton was replaced by Nick Cousins as the team's 3C in February.

But Laughton wasn't benched as a result of the Cousins promotion. Instead, he was moved to left wing, in an experiment that immediately showed promise. At wing, Laughton's plus speed was even more apparent, as he was able to aggressively move up ice without the added burden of supporting the defensemen on the breakout. In addition, when placed on a line with forwards capable of pushing play into the offensive zone regularly, Laughton was able to showcase his shooting ability far more often than earlier in the year, when he seemingly spent entire shifts chasing the puck in his own end.

While Laughton's 5-on-5 on-ice shot attempt metrics in 2015-16 look poor on the whole, there was a big improvement in those metrics following his shift over to the wing. Also, his rate scoring was impressive throughout, as he finished with a solid 1.83 Points/60 mark at 5v5, superior to both Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in that regard. There's clear offensive potential here when it comes to Laughton.

It's expected that Laughton will start out the season on the wing at the NHL level, as the Flyers give him a chance to replicate his solid finish to 2015-16. But the 22-year old forward will not have a spot gifted to him, even with Sam Gagner (who took Laughton's spot late in the 2015-16 season and playoffs) now in Columbus.

Dale Weise clearly signed with the belief that he would (at least) receive third line minutes, Cousins probably will make the team as 3C, Matt Read is still around, and Travis Konecny could potentially win a spot as well, which would put Michael Raffl in the third line discussion too. That's a lot of bodies competing for the role that Laughton looks to fill. Laughton could slide down to the fourth line, which will probably be centered by Boyd Gordon, but with that line expected to be used heavily in the defensive zone, it may not be the best fit for the 22-year old.

It would be a surprise if Laughton was sent down to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms after playing a full season with the big club last year. It is fair to mention, however, that Laughton remains waiver-exempt until he plays 160 total NHL games or until the end of this season, as he signed his entry-level contract at age-18 and did not play 11 NHL games or more in his age-18 or age-19 seasons. So it is possible due to this status that the Flyers could ship him to the AHL, since another team would not have the opportunity to nab him on waivers -- something that cannot be said for players like Cousins or Jordan Weal.

Despite that quirk in his waiver status, the smart money is on Scott Laughton spending the full 2016-17 season in Philadelphia, because he's almost certainly one of the franchise's 12 best forwards at this moment. But his long-term upside remains a question, primarily because his eventual position is still up in the air.

At least to start this season, Laughton should be given the opportunity to play the role of a scoring winger, since it does seem to fit his current skillset best. But the Flyers would surely be open to Laughton taking another shot at center -- it's the more valuable position due to the increased puck handling responsibilities that accompany it, and it's the position that Laughton has played throughout his career. But to get that opportunity, he'll either need to showcase improved poise with the puck in the defensive zone, or essentially be gifted another chance due to injuries.

This year will go a long way towards informing the Flyers if Laughton can follow the Brayden Schenn development path -- a prospect once viewed as a future two-way center at the NHL level who found his true niche as a offensively-oriented winger. Schenn's recent $20.5-million extension proves that a player of that type and caliber is quite valuable to NHL teams. But even Laughton's ostensible floor isn't awful, as it's easy to envision him carving out a role as a fourth line energy forward even if he never really learns how to drive play at 5-on-5 over a full season.

Or maybe Laughton finds his way back to the center position and this time flourishes there. After all, he's only 22 years of age. But right now, all we really know for sure is that Laughton has an NHL-caliber skillset and should stick as a contributor at the highest level of hockey. The degree of that contribution? That's the next question facing him.

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How we voted for Scott Laughton :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
5 5 6 4 6 6 6 6 7 6

How we voted at No. 6 :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
Nick Cousins Nick Cousins Scott Laughton Travis Sanheim Scott Laughton Scott Laughton Scott Laughton Scott Laughton Samuel Morin Scott Laughton

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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25, Summer 2016: