The Flyers are winning for a variety of reasons: balanced scoring, great teamwork, improved special teams.
The list goes on and on.
There is another less-obvious reason they are unexpectedly challenging for the Metropolitan Division title: They have several Swiss Army knife forwards — that is, versatile players who can play center or wing and fit up and down the lineup while not looking out of place.
Scott Laughton is among those players.
Despite missing a total of 20 games because of a broken finger and a groin injury, Laughton, known more as a defensive forward in the past, is quietly having a career season. He has a personal-best 13 goals, 27 points, and a plus-12 rating in 47 games
“He brings a north-south game and he’s tough to play against as an opponent,” said center Kevin Hayes, who has thrived in his first season with the Flyers. “He’s fun to play with, and I don’t think he gets as much credit as he deserves for his offensive game.”
Laughton, 25, has played center or left wing and has been on the second, third, and fourth lines at different junctures of the season. He has been effective wherever coach Alain Vigneault has played him and has helped the penalty kill (26th in the NHL in 2018-19, 12th this season) make major strides.
He can play a fast game, but, perhaps most important, he is a throwback player who would have fit in quite well back when the game was more about grit than speed.
In other words, he’s an old-school player who wins a majority of board battles but also dashes down ice and creates odd-man rushes.
Those type of players are extra valuable in today’s game.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Laughton is also a chirper who, along with teammate Travis Konecny, gets under opponents’ skin more than any Flyer.
“I’ve always liked what Scotty brings to our team – that edge, that bite,” Vigneault said. “He’s dependable at both ends. He’s just playing hard, and like the rest of our team, we put our work boots on and we come to work.”
The Flyers’ first-round pick in 2012, Laughton began gaining confidence when Scott Gordon became the Flyers’ interim coach last season, replacing Dave Hakstol. Gordon had trust in Laughton, having coached him with the AHL’s Phantoms. He gave Laughton more playing time.
“I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity here,” said Laughton, who signed a two-year contract in July than pays him $2.3 million annually. “Just playing in different situations and starting to get more minutes when Gordo came in and then that kind of translated to this year. I’m comfortable in the league and just continuing the process as a pro and getting better.”
Gordon sent Laughton’s career on its current path.
“When Gordo came in, I started playing some big minutes in key situations and I think that gives you confidence,” Laughton said. “It allows you to play your game a little more and feel more comfortable. I’m just trying to be the same player every night.”
Laughton responded to getting more minutes last season, finishing with a then-career-high 12 goals. His growth has continued this season under Vigneault. Laughton said he feels more confident than at any point in a career that has touched parts of seven NHL seasons.
“I’m seeing the ice different than in the past,” he said. “I’m just moving my feet, trying to create plays and be good in the offensive zone and doing the same things [defensively]. Since coming back from the injuries, I’ve felt confident. It’s nice when you have personal success, but even better when your team is winning and you’re contributing to that.”
The Flyers have won eight straight. In the last six of those games, Laughton collected nine points and had a plus-10 rating. He had four multiple-point performances in that span.
In four of those games, he was elevated to the second line, where he flourished with linemates Hayes and Konecny.
But when Joel Farabee was recalled from the Phantoms, he went on the second line in a workmanlike 4-1 win Thursday over Carolina. Laughton was dropped to the third line – replacing the injured James van Riemsdyk – and he played with Derek Grant and Tyler Pitlick, giving the Flyers three “sandpaper” players on that unit.
Laughton didn’t complain about being dropped. He embraced it, set up two goals, and was named the game’s No. 1 star.
“I just try to fill in where I need to and do the same things,” Laughton said after the win. “I’ve played with Pitsy before and love playing with him. He works so hard and creates so much, so it was really fun playing with those guys, and Granter did a really good job. He’s pretty calm in the middle of the ice and makes some really good plays.”
Grant has fit in well since being acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline. He joins Laughton, Michael Raffl, Pitlick, and Nic Aube-Kubel as hardworking, versatile players who are efficient wherever they are placed in the lineup. All are on the third or fourth lines.
When the playoffs roll around, the first two lines on each team can frequently cancel each other out. That makes the bottom two lines more important.