Coach Alain Vigneault plans to use the three-game round-robin tournament, which starts Sunday against Boston, to sort out which lineup he puts together for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Vigneault has a handful of decisions to make:
· Does he use Scott Laughton at left wing on the second line and keep center Nate Thompson as the fourth center?
· Does he insert talented rookie Joel Farabee as the No. 2 left winger, which would slide Laughton to the No. 3 center role, drop Derek Grant from the No. 3 to No. 4 center, and put Thompson on the bench?
· Who is his No. 6 defenseman, Robert Hagg or Shayne Gostisbehere?
The Flyers had lots of success with Hagg and Justin Braun as their third pairing late in the season. Hagg was the team’s most physical defenseman and a steady presence. But Gostisbehere has shown more mobility since having arthroscopic surgery on both knees and he is a threat on the power play.
Hagg and Gostisbehere could alternate in games during the round-robin tourney.
Laughton seemed to bring some clarity to one of Vigneault’s decisions by his strong play at left wing in the Flyers’ 3-2 overtime win over Pittsburgh in Tuesday’s exhibition in Toronto. He scored the game-winner on a breakaway after taking a perfect stretch pass from Travis Konecny.
The line of Laughton, Kevin Hayes, and Konecny was the Flyers’ best unit in the victory, creating numerous scoring chances and playing a 200-foot game, their trademark during the pandemic-shortened regular season -- no matter which lines they were on.
Laughton said he and his linemates have “pretty good chemistry off the ice” and that it carries into games and practices.
“We’ve had a couple good practices before we came here. Just tried to follow it along,” he said. “TK and Hayesy are really good with the puck. Just try to get it to them and find spaces. I think we’re pretty good on the forecheck, good at hemming teams in their own zone. I think that’s huge for us.”
The Flyers went with a Laughton-Hayes-Konecny line late in the season and went 6-0 in those games.
When they used a line that had Farabee with Hayes and Konecny, they went 6-3.
If Laughton does remain on the Hayes line, there’s an outside chance Farabee replaces Michael Raffl or Nic Aube-Kubel as a winger on the fourth line, though that unit has been in sync.
Should Laughton stay as the No. 2 left winger, Thompson would probably center the fourth line. The Flyers went 6-1 with Thompson in the lineup after they acquired him from Montreal in a deadline deal.
Thompson also helps the much-improved penalty kill.
When the season started Oct. 4 in Prague (yes, it seems difficult to believe we are in the same season), Laughton was a third-line center on a Flyers team that was trying to find an identity under new coach Vigneault.
Nearly 10 months later, he has assumed a key role and, along with his linemates, has helped the Flyers become known for their ferocious forecheck and their emphasis on playing a 200-foot game.
Laughton and Hayes also play important roles on the penalty kill, which was 3 for 3 in the win Tuesday over the Penguins. The Flyers’ PK was 26th (78.5% success rate) in the NHL in 2018-19 and improved to 11th (81.8%) this season.
The improvement started at the original training camp in September, Laughton said.
“Just being hard on pucks. Making it hard for other teams to enter our zone,” he said. “I think we did a really good job of that and then getting the puck down the ice. We’ve got to continue to get better at it and move forward. It starts with your goaltending and then we’ve got to filter in. Just got to outwork the other team.”