Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Laughton, Rookie Camp, Quick Hits

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WILL LAUGHTON EARN AN NHL SPOT?

From the day he was announced as the Flyers’ new general manager, Ron Hextall has emphasized a mantra that the organization will not rush its prospects to the NHL. Hextall has said repeatedly that NHL jobs will not simply be handed to players based on their draft position or pedigree from lower levels of hockey.

While most of the outside focus has been on the young defensemen in the system, the same could also be said of 2012 first-round pick Scott Laughton.

The 20-year-old center is certain to play his first full season at the professional level in 2014-15. The question is whether he will be better off playing a likely fourth-line role as a checking center in the NHL with the Flyers or to receive more ice time and potentially more offensive responsibility at the American Hockey League level with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

These decisions will ultimately be based on how ready head coach Craig Berube and Hextall think Laughton is to help the NHL team right away and to balance it off against whether they think he could be a more effective player for the club down the line if he’s in the AHL rather than the NHL. It can be a tough balance to strike.

Playing on the fourth line need not stunt a rookie’s development. As long as he’s sufficiently ready for the NHL pacing and the strength of opposing players, Laughton would still have a role to play even if he doesn’t get many scoring opportunities in a fourth-line role. He would be practicing daily alongside the likes of Claude Giroux, Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Couturier. Lastly, there could be opportunities to move up in the lineup as the season progresses.

Something else to keep in mind: Laughton’s defensive game and grit have always been his biggest strengths. It is difficult to predict at age 20 if the offensive game he developed over the last two seasons of increased scoring line time in the Ontario Hockey League will ever translate into him being an above-average offensive player in the NHL. However, Laughton’s shutdown forward potential and tenacity are things that can more comfortably be projected.

The Flyers currently have Couturier — who was in the same boat as Laughton as a taller and skinnier 18-year-old rookie candidate for the Flyers’ 2011-12 roster — handle much of the defensive heavy lifting at the NHL level. Couturier’s offensive upside, however, is arguably higher than Laughton’s.

The organization would like to see Couturier take on larger offensive responsibilities. That is why it appears Wayne Simmonds will start out camp on Couturier’s line with speedy two-way winger Matt Read. With Simmonds added to the mix, the Couturier line arguably elevates from third-line status to second-line status. Note: This is based on offensive expectations, not ice time. Couturier’s line already logged the second most overall ice time.

In order to consistently produce more offense at five-on-five, Couturier will realistically need to start fewer shifts in the defensive zone and more in the offensive zone as the season progresses. This is another aspect of being a “second line player”‘; the second line tends to get more advantageous zone starts than the shutdown line.

This is where Laughton’s development could ultimately benefit Couturier’s offensive game. It is probably unfair to ask Laughton to jump up right away into a shutdown center role playing tough defensive minutes against other team’s most dangerous forwards. However, if Laughton can be eased into that role over time and develops into a traditional third-line center, Couturier can also gradually be freed up to be used in more offensive-oriented situations.

It won’t happen overnight, but could happen in the relatively near future if Laughton makes rapid progress. There are some intriguing possibilities, because team offensive output wins headlines but team defense and goaltending wins championships.

Hockey scouts and general managers often talk about the desirability of a team having an offensive one-two (or nowadays, one-two-three) punch down the middle with their centers. That is certainly true. But today’s NHL game is still rather low-scoring with a heavy emphasis on team defense. Thus, the potential for the Flyers to have a shutdown one-two punch with Couturier and Laughton is also rather intriguing; and a potentially good fit for the center-lock system that Berube employs.

It also could be beneficial for Laughton that the organization has brought him along thus far at a relatively conservative pace.

Laughton has technically earned an NHL roster spot out of training camp each of the last two seasons. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he dressed in five games for the Flyers before being returned to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. Last season, after not dressing in the regular season opener, he was re-assigned to Oshawa on Oct. 4.

Laughton was stuck in a tough position this year. He has little to gain from a fourth season in the OHL, where he averaged 1.14 points per game last season while continuing to be one of the junior circuit’s more adept defensive centers. At the same time, barring an injury to one of the Flyers’ top three NHL-level centers, Laughton’s ice time was going to be limited for him if he played in the NHL through his allotted nine-game trial and beyond.

Ideally, Laughton would have been allowed to play in the American Hockey League last season; which was probably the most appropriate level of competition for him at his rate of development. Unfortunately, as a 19-year-old CHL-affiliated player, he was ineligible to play in the AHL, so it had to be either the Flyers or Generals.

In 2012-13, Laughton averaged 1.14 points per game at the OHL level while continuing to be one of the junior circuit’s more adept defensive centers. His 2012-13 season in the OHL was interrupted by a pair of suspensions for illegal checks. Before and between the suspensions, Laughton’s game developed at a solid clip.

Laughton finished the 2012-13 OHL season with 23 goals and 56 points in 49 games. That represented an appropriate pace of improvement from his Draft year totals of 21 goals and 53 points in 64 games. In the 2013 OHL playoffs, Laughton dialed up his two-way intensity even higher and produced 13 points (seven goals, seven assists) in seven games.

In 2013-14, Laughton was clearly too advanced for the OHL level. Now the backbone of the Generals’ offensive attack, he averaged 1.61 points per game. Laughton piled up 40 goals, 47 assists and 87 points in 54 games. Laughton was honored with the captaincy of Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, where he had one point (an assist) in seven games. During the OHL playoffs, Laughton posted four goals and 11 points in nine games.

At the end of the 2013-14 season, Laughton dominated the Annual OHL Coaches’ Poll. He was voted the top player in his conference for in faceoffs and penalty killing, finished second in the smartest player, most dangerous in goal area, best shot and best defensive forward categories, and was selected third in the hardest-shot category.

There is little doubt that Laughton can develop into a pro player who plays a defensively sound game and plays with some physicality. As he graduates to the pro level, the main question mark about Laughton is how much offensive upside he actually has. Impressive junior hockey point totals often do not translate to big scoring numbers in the pros, but there is also no question his offensive game improved as he added muscle and gained confidence.

Laughton looked extremely thin at his first Development Camp with the Flyers. In the two years since that time, he has added some muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame. However, even now, he still looks like he has room to add additional strength.

At the Flyers’ training camp last year, I asked Laughton was the biggest difference he noticed between his five-game NHL stint with the Flyers and the OHL. Many young players point to the size, strength and skill of their NHL opponents. Instead, what he noticed from direct on-ice experience with the Flyers had to do with adjusting his pacing and decision-making on the ice.

“The biggest difference I noticed was definitely time with the puck,” Laughton said.

At the time he was drafted by the Flyers in 2012, an NHL scout from another club told me that he saw Laughton’s NHL upside as being similar to former Selke Trophy winner John Madden. The Flyers’ people set the bar even a bit higher, comparing him to former Flyers captain Mike Richards.

Apart from his skills and hockey smarts, Laughton carries himself like a player who “gets it” in terms of his preparation and learning curve. He isn’t loud or boisterous — not a a colorful quote — but the self-confidence he possesses is very obvious. He looks you in the eye when he talks and he does not seem to get overwhelmed by anything.

Laughton has pretty much exclusively played center during his midget and junior hockey careers. If he is to make the Flyers at some point next season — whether it is out of camp or at some point later in the season — he might be asked to play some wing. The Flyers are already inundated with natural centers.

If Laughton starts the 2014-15 season with the Phantoms, he is likely to play a larger offensive role for Terry Murray’s team than he would if he makes the Flyers. However, if he is needed on the big club in a fourth line and penalty killing role, he is capable of making that adjustment.

*********** QUICK HITS: SEPTEMBER 14

* The Flyers officially kicked off their 2014 rookie training camp yesterday at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. I was not in attendance, as I was in transit from Texas to Philadelphia. Starting today, I will cover the rookie camp and NHL roster camp in person.

* At yesterday’s session at the Skate Zone, Flyers chairman Ed Snider met with the media. Most notably, Mr. Snider passed along the good news that his cancer treatments were successful. The combination of chemotherapy and radiation worked, and he is feeling well.

* Flyers fifth-round 2014 draftee Oskar Lindblom scored his first professional-level goal yesterday for Swedish Hockey League team Brynäs IF Gävle. In the club’s 2014-15 regular season home opener, the SHL rookie notched a third-period goal that extended his team’s lead to 3-1 moments after opponent Leksand had trimmed a 2-0 deficit in half. On the play, Lindblom elevated a wrist shot from the slot into the net. Brynäs went on to win by a 4-1 score.

Lindblom started the game on BIF’s fourth line but saw a little more ice time as the match progressed. He skated 12:13 of ice time (about two more minutes than in the regular season opener), registered four shots on goal and was credited with a blocked shot on the defensive end. Game highlights are available here.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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