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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Scott Laughton hopes that one step back can lead to two steps forward

The 2012 first-rounder spent the past year not with the Flyers, but in the AHL developing further as a center. Will it pay off for him and the team?

Kate Frese / SB Nation

One thing that generally tends to be true of young players is this: once they’ve spent a lot of time at a higher level of play (i.e. a different league), you probably don’t want them spending much time back at a lower league ever again. There can be exceptions — post-injury rehab stints, unexpected roster changes that push certain guys out of key roles — but for the most part, a step back is a big red flag in a player’s development.

For one still-fairly-prominent name in their prospects corps, the Flyers are hoping that they’ve got an exception to that rule.

When you look at the Flyers’ current prospect corps, you can see that the timeline really began with the 2012 draft. Two players from that draft have already been featured in the top 20 of this countdown (Taylor Leier and Anthony Stolarz), while one other one is yet to be featured (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But that draft began with the selection of center Scott Laughton, who — not unlike fellow 2012 draftee Anthony Stolarz, whom we discussed in this space on Monday — almost immediately became the system’s top prospect at his position by default upon being drafted, and remained in that position for a couple of years until newer names started rolling in. Laughton’s path towards a long-term spot with the Flyers has been bumpy, and this past year looks like a bit of a step back. Can it get back on track?

No. 12: Scott Laughton

Position: C
Age: 23 (5/30/1994)
Acquired Via: 2012 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 21
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - 19 G, 20 A in 60 GP
Nationality: Canadian
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 11

After two post-draft seasons in (OHL) Oshawa and a fine-if-unspectatular 31-game stint with the Flyers during a 2014-15 season that also involved some time with the Phantoms, 2015-16 was Scott Laughton’s first real chance to stick with the Flyers at the NHL level right out of camp. He did just that, with a training camp performance as impressive as that of nearly any other forward on the team.

To say “Laughton’s first full season with the Flyers was a mixed bag” would be fair, but the surprise was in how exactly he got to that end-grade. As he came up to the NHL, Laughton was frequently seen as a prospect with a ton of potential as a defensive stopper in the NHL, one who could potentially be a shutdown center and top penalty killer for years to come thanks to his speed, checking, and overall tenacity. On the other hand, there were questions about just how good of an offensive player he would be, with many thinking he may never score more than your average third-liner might.

One full year with the Flyers later, that narrative was almost entirely flipped on its head. Laughton, rather than making an impact as a great defensive player, struggled mightily in his own third of the ice, turning the puck over fairly often and losing assignments more than you’d like to see. On the other hand, his offensive play was likely better than many would have expected — a mark of 1.88 5-on-5 points per 60 (via was the fourth-best of all Flyers forwards, and was very comfortably in the range of what you’d expect from a top-6 forward in today’s NHL.

Additionally, many of Laughton’s successes came not at center — his natural position through juniors and the minors — but on the wing, where he spent some time as the year went on. For a player who showed offensive potential but was struggling to handle defensive responsibilities, the move made some sense in the short-term.

All in all, while there were some definite questions surrounding Laughton heading into the 2016-17 season, there were genuine causes for optimism, and there was confidence that the Flyers at least had an NHLer on their hands. How good of one was anyone’s guess, and maybe “at least an NHLer” was a disappointing outlook for the former first-round pick at this point in his career in the eyes of some, but the Flyers clearly had something to work with here.

Unfortunately, the 2016-17 season wasn’t the step forward that Laughton was hoping to see in his age-22 season.

Mere days before training camp was set to end, an injury in practice sent Laughton to the shelf for almost a month into the season. The injury came after what was generally seen as an underwhelming camp for the Oshawa native, and at the time it seemed like maybe his injury gave the Flyers a chance to kick the can down the road a bit when it came to any potential difficult decisions regarding his spot on the team. Laughton was sent to the Phantoms on a conditioning stint in early November, then was called back up to the Flyers just before Thanksgiving and played in two games with the NHL club.

That second game — on Black Friday against the Rangers — would end up being Laughton’s final NHL game of the season, likely in large part due to this turnover that set up the first goal of the afternoon for the Blueshirts.

For the most part, Laughton’s two games in the NHL this year — both of which were mainly spent at center, by the way — went fairly well. He didn’t score or set up any goals, but he looked the part of a solid NHLer, and basically any on-ice measure you could find said good things about his play in those two games. But plays like the above turnover to J.T. Miller only reignited concerns about Laughton’s defensive capabilities in the NHL, as this was the kind of mistake the Flyers were surely hoping to see less of in his second full season with the NHL team.

After that Rangers game, Laughton sat in the press box for five games, and was then sent back to Lehigh Valley, where he remained for the entire season while multiple other AHL forwards (such as Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal) got their shots with the Flyers. And with Weal eventually taking full advantage of his NHL opportunity, the door was pretty well slammed shut on Laughton returning to the team at any point this season. He posted solid point totals with the Phantoms in 60 games and was one of their better players in their first-round loss to the Hershey Bears, but at first, it was still hard to shake the feeling that this was a wasted season for the 2012 first-rounder.

At this point, one could have been forgiven for thinking Laughton’s future with the organization may not be long. While he was due a new contract for 2016-17, he was never likely to get a big raise, and he would be waiver-eligible for the first time in 2017-18. Some people (cough) even thought that he was a potential pick in expansion for the Vegas Golden Knights, who figured to be looking for potential high-upside reclamation projects and may have seen someone in Laughton who could benefit from a change of scenery.

But then in mid-June, a wrench was thrown into that last scenario when something very unexpected happened: Ron Hextall elected to protect Laughton in expansion. Over Michael Raffl, over Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, over Jordan Weal, and over a few other forwards that we know the Flyers like. Almost no one saw this particular move coming — none of our staff predicted that Laughton would be protected, nor did over 98 percent of our readers — and it was hard to interpret that move as anything other than a big vote of confidence for Laughton by the front office. Three days later, Bellemare was chosen by Vegas in expansion, and suddenly, the guy who spent two games with the Flyers last year looked like the clubhouse leader in the competition for the Flyers’ fourth-line center spot for 2017-18.

It’s clear that the Flyers felt like the time that Laughton spent with the Phantoms last year ended up working out well for his development. Despite his stints at the wing, the Flyers have generally said throughout his career that they see him as a center in the NHL, and it certainly sounds like when he came back to Lehigh Valley, the goal was to get him to focus on developing the skills he’ll need to be a successful center in the NHL.

Back on BSH Radio in July, former Phantoms assistant Riley Cote spoke about the changes Laughton had to make to his game this past year, and how they should help him going forward (transcribed by our own Charlie O’Connor):

I think he had a hard time adjusting to a lesser role, [lines] three or four, you know what I mean? I think what he’s learned coming back down is that... he didn’t play on the power play, he didn’t play in offensive situations like that, so I think he’s able to absorb more of what he really, truly is.

It’s not a knock on his ability. But once you get to the NHL, there’s so many unbelievable talents, so you have to take a lesser role sometimes. I think for him, he’s a third line center probably max on a good team. But I think he has to buy into that role, because there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that role. I think he needs to be just a little bit more gritty, maybe cut his losses a little bit more. I think he hangs onto the puck too much and gets into trouble, turns pucks over, and so he doesn’t have to carry the puck as much.

I think he works hard enough, gets on the puck hard enough, I think he just... we talked about it all the time: “Simplify his game.” Be a hard worker, be a reliable centerman, win faceoffs, kill penalties. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s some guys — and I think he had an identity crisis — it’s hard to swallow when you’re a 90-point guy, almost 100-point guy in juniors. You think you’re just gonna hop right into the NHL and be an 80-point guy in the NHL, and it’s just not realistic.

Cote isn’t the only member (or former) member of the organization that thinks last year went well for Laughton despite what, from afar, looks like a step back. Ron Hextall said on July 2 (a couple of weeks before signing Laughton to a two-year extension) that Laughton “had a terrific year” and “really grew up a lot” in 2016-17. Either people in the organization clearly like what Laughton did last year, or they’re doing a really good job pretending they did.

Even despite the glowing reviews and inside track on a lineup spot, Laughton’s path to the roster isn’t secure. Mike Vecchione is also a candidate for a bottom-6 forward spot with the Flyers next year, and he very well could get that spot over Laughton if the latter struggles in camp. But given what the Flyers did this summer by showing their hand a bit and protecting Laughton, it does seem like the spot is his to lose.

And while “a solid bottom-6 center” maybe isn’t quite what you hope for from a mid-first rounder like Laughton, if the Flyers can get him to develop the skills of a solid defensive forward and penalty-killer and show those skills at the NHL level, that may be all they need out of him. Some combination of Claude Giroux, Nolan Patrick, and Sean Couturier should anchor this team down the middle into the next decade; a bottom-6 guy who can play defense, skate and score a bit, and even move up to the wing (in a pinch) could fill out that lineup just fine.

Maybe this year was a step back for Laughton. No matter what shine you put on it, the optics of a player spending a full year in the AHL after spending a full year in the NHL are never going to be great. But this seems like it could be a case where a step back isn’t a sign of the end, but could instead be a chance for Laughton to take two steps forward to get to where the Flyers want him to be. We’ll find out soon enough.

How We Voted For Scott Laughton

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
10 14 12 11 10 12 16 14 11 7 9 13

How We Voted At No. 12

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Samuel Morin German Rubtsov Scott Laughton German Rubtsov Carter Hart Scott Laughton Samuel Morin Philippe Myers Oskar Lindblom Carter Hart Robert Hagg German Rubtsov

How The Community Voted For Scott Laughton

Ranking # of Votes
Ranking # of Votes
1 0
2 0
3 0
4 1
5 8
6 15
7 33
8 46
9 43
10 68
11 87
12 84
13 90
14 103
15 76
16 60
17 54
18 49
19 34
20 30
21 21
22 25
23 10
24 6
25 13
NR 78


Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: