Flyers fourth line off to fast start

101217_laughton-raffl_1200
Philadelphia Flyers’ Scott Laughton, right, approaches Michael Raffl, left, who got the assist on Laughton’s goal during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the New York Rangers , Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Philadelphia.

The text was a nice touch, particularly given who it came from. Late Tuesday night Las Vegas time, early Wednesday back east, as Scott Laughton and his Flyers teammates returned from a grueling four-game road trip to start their season, the man who had to leave town so Laughton didn’t wanted him to know he was watching.

And approving.

“It said ‘Good job,'” Laughton said of the text received from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

“Class.”

Among the things Flyers general manager Ron Hextall repeated over the summer, this one was  at or near the top: He didn’t want to lose Bellemare, but he didn’t want to lose the 23-year-old Laughton either. He thought an expansion team wouldn’t have much interest in a late-to-the game 32-year-old fourth-line player.

He was wrong.

That it has not been an issue four games into this young season underlines why it even happened. Hextall protected the 23-year-old Laughton instead, then signed him to a two-year deal worth $1.925 million. “That was a nice feeling for sure,’’ said Laughton of being protected. “Didn’t really see it coming. And then to sign the contract this summer, it definitely shows that they put a lot of trust in me.’’

Hextall has explained that trust this way: He liked the skill set, but what really turned the GM was how Laughton, after spending an entire season with the Flyers as a 21-year-old, handled a full season demotion to the AHL last year.

He didn’t brood. He got better. Way better, it seems. The Flyers’ fourth line has been a revelation thus far this season, notching its first points on Andrew MacDonald’s goal in Nashville on Tuesday after oh-so-many close calls in the previous three road games. They also drew a pair of penalties – three if you credit them with the too many men on the ice infraction called on the Predators moments after they hit the ice.

As a line, they have registered 16 shots on goal. Laughton has half of them.

“I think Laughts made a huge step forwards from what I’ve seen,’’ said Michael Raffl, the left wing on that fourth line. In Laughton’s previous incarnation as a full-time NHL player, he sometimes centered a line with Raffl and Wayne Simmonds.

“He’s very good in our own end, he’s really good on faceoffs,’’ Raffl said of this version. “He’s in good position. It makes it really easy for the wing to get open and find an option if the center man is in good position. He’s always coming with speed.’’

So, too, is Raffl, and right wing Taylor Leier, whose presence on this team has also been a surprise. Oskar Lindblom and Matt Read are in the AHL. Leier is here, at least partly because of his chemistry with Laughton.

By Leier’s account, the two players have already at least 150 games on the same line together. They are off-ice buddies and are not averse to taking their work home with them. “Great friendship off ice.’’ Said Laughton. “Just being able to read off each other. I mean we do a good job of that. Knowing where each other is at all times and being able to put each other in good situations. And not handing our problems off to each other.’’

“It’s nice because we both play with the same speed.’’ Said Leier. “And we kind of have the same traits. Being tenacious. And we’re both pretty hungry on pucks.’’

“Because we’re all good skaters, we don’t have to play with as much structure in the offensive zone,’’ said Raffl. “We can read off each other and just go because we’re fast enough to back-check if something happens. That makes it fun to play with those guys for sure.’’

A few caveats:

`It’s only been four games,’’ cautions Laughton. Last year’s fourth line consistently consisted of Bellemare and the much-maligned Chris VandeVelde. The two players combined for 23 points. With one point in four games, this fourth line is roughly on that pace.

Laughton and Leier are both -2 so far in the season, and Raffl is -3. But these are numbers that follow a four-game road swing to start the season, when the opposition gets the last shift and usually angles for a mismatch.

In Anaheim that meant matchups against  Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. In Los Angeles, it was Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli. Against San Jose, Joes Thornton and Pavelski jumped over the boards. Against Nashville the other night, they were pitted against Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen.

And yet the nightly eye test suggests something much improved, particularly when you factor all those chances against what are supposed to be away game mismatches. As Leier said, “We’d probably be worrying a little bit if we weren’t creating something offensively. But every game we seem to have four or five or six Grade A chances.

“Those add up. Those eventually will go in.’’