Have you guys heard? We’re officially within a week of preseason opening! It’s the home stretch! It’s all finally happening! Are we all so excited?
But with all that excitement for hockey to finally be back (because I’m just assuming the answer to that last question was a resounding yes), we’re still left with a number of questions about what the Flyers’ opening night roster will look like. They’ve got a few vacancies, and it would hardly be an understatement to say that the right piece put into right place could be the difference in turning this team into a Cup contender. They’re that close. And one of the biggest open questions heading into camp? Just who the Flyers’ new third line center will be.
We’re looking at what could shake out to be a pretty dramatic camp battle—especially with Couturier’s injury opening the door for some longer looks for centers—and we’ve got a host of options to slot into this space. And this week, we’re going to be breaking down these options. Starting from the inside and working our way out, more or less.
Starting with Scott Laughton.
Much maligned by sections of the fanbase for not living up to his draft pedigree and earlier hype, Laughton spent this past season carving out a solid role for himself in the NHL, proving that after his extended stint in the AHL, that he could stick with the big club. Let’s take a moment to recap some of these results.
2017-18 Regular Season Stats
Not too bad, right? Playing mostly limited minutes on the fourth line, Laughton picked up 10 goals on the season and finished seventh among forwards in this department. Not quite world burning, but respectable. But what we really want to hone in on are those advanced stats. Over the course of the season, he posted both positive Corsi and expected goals differentials, as his line was able to, on average, outshoot and outchance opponents while they were on the ice. That’s play driving baby, even if the results weren’t as dramatic as we may have liked. If nothing else, it’s a start, a solid foundation.
But, wait, let’s back track for a second there. It said “mostly” on the fourth line up there. What does that mean?
It may be something easy to have slipped our mind, but Laughton spent the month of March (plus the one playoff game when Couturier was out) bumped up to the third line. A relatively brief showing, sure, but he did just fine against the next level in competition, and didn’t see it hurt these nice numbers that we broke down. So seeing him get the bump again to start the season wouldn’t be a brand new look. We’ve had a taste before.
But beyond the strength he’s shown in driving play, giving us the hope that he would be able to still produce well against tougher competition, what’s perhaps even more intriguing is how Laughton may well serve as a good stylistic fit alongside our (ostensible) third line wingers. Based on how the top six is filling out with the addition of James van Riemsdyk, this leaves the most likely configuration of the third line including Oskar Lindblom and Wayne Simmonds on the wings. On paper, this doesn’t figure to be a line with an excess of speed—Lindblom, while his skating has improved, isn’t a burner, and it’s hard to imagine that post-surgery Simmonds will be doing much blasting up ice—and this may work in Laughton’s favor. He’s not not quick enough, but he’s a player who doesn’t rely on speed in order for his game to work at its best level. He figures to be someone who can get up ice quickly, and could do something on a breakaway, but he’s also someone that these particular wingers will be able to keep up with.
And what also appeals would be his ability to keep up with them. Does that sound strange and redundant? Let me explain. What’s most fun and exciting about both Lindblom and Simmonds’ games is their emphasis on crashing or getting set up in front of the net to create high danger chances. And the key to this? Getting up ice in transition with at least respectable speed. We’re not talking Travis Konecny blasting in on a breakaway speed, but they can move. And the flip side of Laughton not being too fast where it feels like he would be dragging these wingers along is that he’s still quick and mobile enough to keep up with their transition speed. It’s a happy medium that’s needed to be met to really click with these two players, is what we’re getting at, and Laughton figures are just the type of player who would slot in well here.
But let’s roll back for a second. Before we make it sound like Laughton’s the exact perfect fit for this spot, we should also consider what his promotion would do to the rest of the lineup. With Laughton on the third line, this would leave the most likely fourth line as one with Jori Lehtera centering Jordan Weal and Michael Raffl, which, you might say, isn’t awful. Having Weal and Raffl as your fourth line wingers points to some serious depth, and is a lot of skill against an average fourth line. And we made it through the end of last season with Lehtera as the 4C and it was fine. But it could be better. Laughton on the fourth line with those same wingers would be even better. Just saying.
So, if we were to try to wrap this up neatly with a bow in closing this out, we’d note that Laughton may well be a nice fit for the third line center, with a style that would mesh well with the most qualified wingers and numbers and a history that would suggest that he can effectively drive play against (most) bottom six competition. But there might be better out there. Which works out well for us, because we’ve got a whole week devoted to finding this best option. Stay tuned, friends.