Consider for a moment the Flyers’ second line Tuesday night, in their 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks, a line that coach Alain Vigneault created during the 28 hours that passed from Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline to the game’s 7 p.m. puck-drop. Centering the line was the franchise’s defining acquisition of the offseason, a center who signed a seven-year, $50 million contract, and flanking him were two former first-round draft picks, one of whom was named to his first All-Star team this season.
Sure, you’d expect Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny to be on such a line, on reputation alone. But Scott Laughton was the third forward there, and he was the Flyers’ first-round draft pick in 2012, and it might be easy to forget that. Five previous seasons with the Flyers, and Laughton had never scored more than 12 goals in any of them, had never been more than a third-line guy, smart, tenacious, a hard worker. Except he has 12 goals and 22 points in 43 games, his most productive season so far, now that he is 25, now that he has been around and seen some things. Could he have been a second-line player a year ago? Two years ago? Three?
“That’s a tough one,” Laughton, who had two assists Tuesday after scoring two goals Saturday in a victory over the Winnipeg Jets. “I don’t know. I think I’ve grown a lot and really focused on little details of my game. That allows me to use my skill set and go from there.”
The process that Laughton described — the attention paid to small yet important aspects of becoming a better player, the self-trust he had to develop before he could play with full freedom each night — isn’t necessarily a brief one, no matter how much one hopes it will be or expects it to be. For Laughton, it took nearly eight years from the moment the Flyers drafted him, and he is merely one example of an essential, yet underrated, factor that has the Flyers pointed toward a playoff berth and perhaps a decent run once they get there: time. This team needed time.
There were only so many people who wanted to hear that truth over the last several years, as former general manager Ron Hextall put the franchise through an exacting and incremental rebuild. And there were surely some who didn’t want to hear it even in the last several hours, as current GM Chuck Fletcher remained prudent and refused to make a splashy, roster-reshaping move at Monday’s deadline. But as much as the more recent changes and acquisitions — Vigneault, Hayes, Matt Niskanen, et al — have helped, that patience, that willingness to wait for players to come into their own at their own pace, has been an essential component to the Flyers’ improvement.
It was an uncomfortable, unfamiliar position for the Flyers to take. Always, they had been about the quick fix, the go-for-it strategy every year, until they reached the point that they simply couldn’t go for it anymore. They didn’t have the talent. They didn’t have the depth. In a salary-cap league, they didn’t have the spending power. If they wanted to be relevant again, if they wanted to get back to the excellence that once was routine for them, they really had no other choice. It took Hextall recognizing as much, and it took Fletcher continuing what he began. It took, and it will take, time.
“Some guys figure it out in a year — what it takes to be consistent, what it takes to bring it every night,” Vigneault said. “Some other guys never figure it out. Some other guys, it takes them a couple of years. We’ve got a good, veteran core right now, and that’s helping the younger guys in their third, fourth seasons. For a lot of them, this is new, playing meaningful games this time of year. This is a lot of fun, [learning] how to handle the moment, and so far we’ve done a pretty good job.”
But even those younger guys whom Vigneault referenced have been around a while. Consider more than just the Flyers’ second line. Consider their roster. Sean Couturier was drafted nine years ago, in 2011, and only in these last three years has he become their best all-around player. In 2012, the Flyers drafted Laughton and Shayne Gostisbehere. In 2013, they drafted Robert Hagg. In 2014, they drafted Travis Sanheim, Nic Aube-Kubel, and Oskar Lindblom. In 2015 — half a decade ago — they drafted Ivan Provorov and Konecny and signed Phil Myers. In 2016, they drafted Carter Hart. Carter Hart, goalie of the future, who only as of mid-August could legally sip champagne from the Stanley Cup, has been part of the Flyers’ organization for nearly four years.
It’s no coincidence that, after Fletcher manipulated the roster Monday by trading for forwards Derek Grant and Nate Thompson, he kept Morgan Frost with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and sent Joel Farabee to them. Those two are the youngest of the young. Each is 20. They have time, and they will be given time. The homegrown players who remain on the roster, who have been on the roster over these long seasons that started so slowly and resulted in so much mediocrity, needed that time, too.
“It’s frustrating when you’re chasing the year pretty much from the get-go,” Laughton said. “We’ve done a better job of that this year, and we’ve done a really good job of getting off to good starts and then closing out games. Don’t allow teams a lot of room, and you can tell with a lot of our leaders and older guys that we’ve been here before.”
You could tell Tuesday night. Over the game’s final 33 minutes, the Flyers allowed the Sharks just four shots on goal. Four. They played like a team that had seen some things, a team that was starting to do some things, finally. A team capable of doing more.