ALLENTOWN - No one said staying in the NHL was easy, even for players selected in the first round of the draft.
Take, for instance, Scott Laughton, whose career seems back on track after he helped steer the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to an AHL playoff berth.
Laughton, the Flyers' first-round selection (20th overall) in the 2012 draft, was demoted to the Phantoms early this season.
"It was definitely tough. I'm not going to lie," Laughton, 22, said after the Phantoms practiced Wednesday at the PPL Center, preparing for the home opener Friday of their best-of-five, first-round series against Hershey. "It was tough mentally. But at the same time, I've been in this situation before, and I'm comfortable here. I started my pro career here, so I'm comfortable in this building, and knowing the training staff and stuff like that, that kind of made it easier."
At the time of his demotion, general manager Ron Hextall told Phantoms coach Scott Gordon he wanted Laughton to play more of a defensive role, whether as a penalty killer or trying to help shut down an opponent's top line.
Hextall wanted the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Laughton "to think defense first," Gordon said. "And as it turned out, the more efficient he became at playing defense, the better he was offensively. He was one of our go-to guys offensively."
"He's become a much more well-rounded player," Hextall said. "Scotty understands the role that suits him and his strengths. He's used his speed better. He's become a much more consistent player."
Hextall said "there have been times where I've been hard on Scotty, but I can say this: For him to go back after playing a full year in the National Hockey League and to work every day to become a better player . . . it's really noticeable. His focus during a game and his work ethic are very noticeable. He's really grown as a player."
Laughton has made vast improvement on his defense and excelled on the penalty kill and in faceoffs. He contributed 19 goals, 39 points, and a team-best plus-17 rating in 60 games.
"I'm playing better on the [penalty kill] and taking care of my zone better instead of trying to cheat up in the zone and create offense, like I was doing last year," said Laughton, who scored four shorthanded goals this season.
In Lehigh Valley's balanced attack, Laughton has primarily centered Colin McDonald and Taylor Leier. That line usually has been matched against opponents' top units.
"I can't say enough positive things about him," McDonald said. "Just a great two-way player. Good locker room guy. He competes hard every night and has really helped me this year. I know it was disappointing for him that he was [sent] down this year, but selfishly we're all very happy he was with us."
Laughton, who scored just nine goals in 109 career games with the Flyers, is among the "bubble" players Hextall will consider protecting in the expansion draft, along with Nick Cousins and Michael Raffl.
Hextall said he considers Laughton part of the Flyers' future.
Laughton said he hopes he remains with the Flyers, "but you never know. It's definitely been a privilege to be in this organization. The way it's gone, it's been up and down, but I think this year I've definitely been on an up slope and trying to get better every day. That's the biggest thing. I'm just trying to work on my game and trying to play in the NHL again. That's the end goal."
Right now, he is concerned only about Hershey, the Phantoms' first-round opponent.
"This is my main focus," he said. "When I'm down here, I focus on this team and don't focus on the Flyers. I think that's what helps your game, too. If you're focused on a call-up all the time, you're not going to get it."
The Phantoms ended a seven-year playoff drought.
"I'm really excited for the playoffs and to give Allentown fans a taste of the playoffs for the first time," Laughton said.
Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny were added to Team Canada for next month's IIHF World Championships. Hextall is the GM of the team, which includes Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. . . . Twelve Flyers draft picks are on the Phantoms' roster. . . . Some playoff tickets remain. . . . The Phantoms were the AHL's highest-scoring team, averaging 3.4 goals per game. . . . Phil Myers, the highly touted defenseman whose junior season ended Tuesday, will be reassigned to the Phantoms, Gordon said. . . . Myers and goalie Carter Hart - two gifted Flyers prospects - are not expected to see much, if any, action in the AHL playoffs.