When Scott Laughton was sent down to the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms last season, some regarded him as a first-round bust.
That was then. This is now: Laughton steadied his game with the Phantoms so much that the Flyers protected him in the expansion draft and he is favored to win the fourth-line center spot when training camp opens Sept. 15 in Voorhees.
Laughton, 23, arrived at the Flyers’ training facility Aug. 20, about a month before he needed to report.
“Thought I’d come in early and kind of get settled in and work on the game a bit and work with these guys,” he said the other day, referring to the others who have arrived ahead of time. “It was a big summer for me, and I’m real excited to come in and earn a job.”
Laughton is expected to battle rookie Mike Vecchione for a roster spot. Working in Laughton’s favor: He would need to clear waivers to be sent to the Phantoms, while Vecchione wouldn’t.
“I’m not going to come to any preconceived notions about any battle,” general manager Ron Hextall said last week. “All our players need to put out in training camp . . . There are no guarantees here.”
The Flyers, in a decision that surprised Laughton, didn’t expose the center to Vegas in the expansion draft.
That, he said, showed that that the organization has faith in him.
“When I got protected, it was a big honor,” Laughton said. “I kind of sat down with all the names and didn’t really think I was going to be [protected]. But when I was, it was a big deal to me and my family. That’s just a little part of the offseason, though. It’s nice that the Flyers still think highly of me, and I still think highly of myself.”
Added Laughton: “I’m looking forward to this year and proving I belong up here again.”
At 18, not long after he was taken 20th overall in the draft, Laughton played five NHL games during the lockout season in 2012-13. He has played parts of four seasons with the Flyers, including 71 games in 2015-16, when he managed seven goals.
“I’ve played 100 games in both leagues now and kind of learned the ways of both leagues,” he said.
Last season, Laughton had 19 goals, 20 assists and a plus-17 rating in 60 games with the Phantoms. He was used on the penalty kill, played late in games, and took key faceoffs. His confidence grew.
“I took really big pride in the role I played and in the defensive game I played,” he said. “I kind of figured out that what’s going to get me in the NHL is a defensive role, and if offense comes, that’s a bonus.”
Laughton learned to “take responsibility in my own end. The year before, when I played a full year up here, I was trying to get ahead of the puck and create offense for myself. I thought that was going to help me, and it kind of hindered my defensive game. I think just staying below the puck and helping my defense out really helped my game.”
The Phantoms last week signed veteran goalie Leland Irving, perhaps an indication that Anthony Stolarz isn’t healing from knee surgery as quickly as the Flyers had hoped. Irving, 29, was a first-round selection by Calgary in 2006. Hextall was mum on Stolarz’ condition, saying only that he would have more information later in the week. “I’m taking baby steps to get healthy and just make sure I’ll be able to start the season on time,” Stolarz said recently. “I’m probably 90 percent right now.”