Make or Break Year for Scott Laughton

The Philadelphia Flyers have done so well in the first round of the NHL Draft that it’s strange for fans to understand when a player doesn’t come to Philadelphia and start making an impact right away. Sean Couturier, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Mike Richards and even Luca Sbisa made significant contributions when they entered the NHL.

Then there’re other first round picks like James Van Riemsdyk and Steve Downie who were traded – rightly or wrongly – after they didn’t make a large enough impact in their first few seasons with the team.

The latest Flyers’ first-round pick to play in the NHL, Scott Laughton, will need to make some strides this season or he could find himself in the second group.

Laughton’s Path

Laughton played five games for the Flyers in 2012 after the team selected him with the 20th pick in the ’12 Draft. While he didn’t look out of place, the Flyers brass decided junior seasoning would be more effective than the ups-and-downs of an NHL rookie season and returned him to the Oshawa Generals.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
It’s been four years since Scott Laughton was drafted; testing some fan’s patience. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The following season, during the lockout-shortened 2013-14 season, Laughton spent the entire season with the Generals. He also captained Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 2014 World Junior Championships. With two extra junior seasons under his belt, there was hope that the Ontario native would earn a spot with the Flyers out of next year’s training camp.

But with Giroux, Couturier, Vincent Lacavalier and Pierre-Eduard Bellemare at center on the roster, there wasn’t much room for Laughton. Instead, he was sent to the Phantoms where he spent a little over a month with the team.

By the middle of November, Laughton was with the Flyers. During that stretch, he showed some promise, but also failed to prove himself as a defensive stalwart. After watching Couturier do it as an 18-year-old, it was frustrating for fans to watch a then-20-year-old struggle with less responsibility.

However, the Flyers understood that learning and adjusting to the defensive side of the game can be one of the toughest assignments for a developing prospect and chose to re-assign Laughton to the Phantoms in February. The move was surprising at the time, but cleared cap space and opened up a spot for a more-seasoned Ryan White.

Laughton finished with 27 points in 39 games with the Phantoms as the Flyers accepted their fate as a non-playoff team and sold pieces at the 2015 trade deadline. With a half season between the AHL and NHL, the former first-rounder seemed destined for a full-time spot in the 2015-16 season.

Last Season

Lecavalier was definitely not a top nine center and R.J. Umberger didn’t figure to play too much entering last season, which opened up some room for Laughton. In his fourth training camp, he made the roster, specifically as the third-line center behind Giroux and Couturier.

Again, Laughton was tasked with some defensive responsibility, but he showed some offensive potential such as this goal against Henrik Lundqvist:

But like the 2014-15 season, the 6-foot-1 forward struggled with the defensive side of the puck at times. Coach Dave Hakstol had no problem making Laughton a healthy scratch and when Jordan Weal was acquired it created another obstacle for him to overcome to stay in the lineup.

His biggest opposition, though, was former Phantoms teammate Nick Cousins, who was recalled in February and immediately started making a bigger impact at center on the third line. Cousins forced Laughton to the wing and more often, into the press box.

However, the move wasn’t all bad. Away from the responsibilities of center, Laughton seemed to excel at left wing while playing with Cousins and Matt Read. In fact, the trio didn’t allow a goal in the first month they were together.

More importantly, it added a secondary scoring option behind Giroux and Couturier’s lines and Laughton had a play in that. Unfortunately for him, his season was ended a tad early after a bad collision into the end boards in Game 4 of the series against the Capitals.

Next Year

Van Riemsdyk was traded in a strength-for-weakness deal that featured underwhelming former top picks, while Sbisa was dealt in an effort to find the final piece for a Stanley Cup. For Laughton, the expansion draft could spell the end of his days in Philly.

The Flyers will protect eight forwards. Giroux, Voracek, Schenn, Couturier and Simmonds are the locks and Michael Raffl, Cousins and possibly Dale Weise figure to be ahead of Laughton on the protection rankings.

Nick Cousins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Nick Cousins proved more valuable at center than Laughton (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That means Laughton will need a big season to beat out any of those three. It’s likely Cousins takes back that third-line center role, which could actually benefit Laughton.

There’s an open spot in the top six and while most have Raffl penciled in there, Laughton could have an outside shot. He’s shown more offense on the wing and has never had a crack in the top six.

If the Flyers want to test some players on the second line, a player with first-round pedigree should be high on the list. Of course, the problem there is it’s a whole new role for Laughton in the NHL.

But as stated earlier, the defensive side of the game is much harder to learn than the offensive. If he doesn’t get that opportunity, he’ll still need to provide depth offense, which the Flyers sorely need.

If he doesn’t, there’s a good chance the team exposes him in the expansion draft next summer and it will be tough for a start-up team to ignore a third-year former first-rounder. The Flyers will then just hope Laughton’s more of a Sbisa than a Van Riemsdyk.