Laughton impresses 4/14
He recorded an assist in his first American Hockey League game on Friday night, then scored his first professional goal less than 24 hours later to help the Phantoms beat the Connecticut Whale.
The 18-year-old Laughton, a standout center for his junior hockey team in Oshawa, Ontario, was Philadelphia’s first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. The National Hockey League’s transfer agreement with the Canadian junior leagues dictates that he must either spend next season in the NHL, presumably with the Flyers, or be returned to his junior team until its concludes its season.
He could theoretically join the Phantoms again once that happens – like he has done this season – but it would not be for more than a handful of contests. And with the Phantoms set to move to a new arena in Allentown, Pa., the following season, the window to see Laughton play here is small.
In his limited time here, Laughton has been strong on face-offs in all situations – the power play, the penalty kill and even-strength – and has shown the defensive instincts that got him drafted 20th overall, and a five-game audition with the Flyers at the start of this lockout-shortened year.
On the play on which he scored his first pro goal, he picked up an errant pass that had bounced off New York Rangers’ playoff hero Chris Kreider’s stick just outside the Whale blue line. Shorthanded, he rushed into the zone and fired a shot that hit a defenseman and fluttered into the net behind goalie Cam Talbot for a 1-0 lead. The whole sequence unfolded in a matter of seconds.
“That’s why he’s a first-round pick,” Phantoms coach Terry Murray said Saturday night. “Those are the things those guys do. They have talent, they have skill, they have instincts. They have a high IQ on the ice. You make plays with the puck, you make plays without the puck and that’s why these guys are players that end up in the National Hockey League – and very effective players.”
The first-round draft pick label is one that will stick with Laughton throughout his career, whether he likes it or not. There is a certain level of play that is expected out of such players.
So far, Laughton has played at that level. Had he not been, he would have been pulled off the team’s No. 1 line, or the special teams units. But he is still there, and has excelled with the added responsibilities that come with them, despite playing just eight career games as a professional.
“It’s all a level playing field now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-round pick or a seventh-round pick,” Murray said Saturday. “When you turn pro, it’s ‘What are you going to do for me now?’ It’s not what you have done. He’s got a lot of growing to do. He’s a fine player, he’s a good person. There’s a nice upside to it, but it’s time to start showing what you can do right now. That’s how you earn your right to get on the ice. I’m not going to hand him ice time because he’s a first-round pick. You have to go out and do the right things, play the right way – and he’s doing that.”
Laughton projects as a two-way center, but he is primarily regarded for his defensive play. When he was invited to Philadelphia’s training camp – and subsequently made the roster – he drew comparisons to Sean Couturier, a similar talent who did the same exact thing the prior season.
When they sent him back to Oshawa – in part so as not to burn a year of his entry-level contract in this labor-shortened season, also because Daniel Briere became healthy – Laughton made a conscious effort to focus on improving his offense, finishing with 23 points in his final 17 games.
“I think I knew what I had to work on,” Laughton said. “I was pretty good defensively, and I think that’s why I stayed (in Philly). I wanted to work on my offensive game and this summer, getting bigger, to try to make that step. It’s always a big guy’s game, so just try and get bigger and faster.”
If he does that, there is a good chance that these next three games in Glens Falls could be his last.
“It’s a big summer for him,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said Sunday afternoon. “He needs to get stronger, like most young kids. When you’re playing in the NHL, you’re playing against a lot bigger and stronger guys than you’re used to playing against probably in junior hockey or even in the American League. In the five games he played at the start of the year for us, he didn’t look out of place there either. In the game Friday night, I thought he was one of the better players. Today, playing three-in-three, he’s holding his own for an 18-year-old kid.”
Holmgren said speed has never been Laughton’s issue, and that it’s primarily just packing muscle onto his 6-foot-1 frame. He was listed at 177 pounds at the start of the year, but is building it up.
“He just needs to continue to develop and mature physically and get stronger,” Holmgren said. “A lot of times, you can’t really speed that up. It just happens as you get older.”