Without much fanfare, Flyers center Scott Laughton had the best all-around season of his NHL career in 2018-19.
He dressed in all 82 games; the durable forward has only missed one game over the past two seasons. He logged a career-high average 14:51 of ice time, recorded career highs of 12 goals and 32 points even while starting 63.7 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone.
This summer, Laughton was an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. On July 12, eighteen days ahead of his scheduled arbitration hearing, Laughton agreed to a new two-year contract with a $2.3 million average annual value (AAV).
"It's definitely a relief to get it done so quick, but I wasn't really too stressed over it. I had a good talk with Chuck after the season, and we were on the same page. I was optimistic that we'd get something done way ahead of the arb," Laughton said.
"I was happy with my season last year; the consistency of it. That's always been my goal, to establish myself in this league as a player you can depend on. I think I've done that. I really want to thank Scott Gordon for everything he did for me. I think Gordo gave me a lot of opportunities, and helped me a lot. It was a step forward for me personally and for our team. Now it's time to win. I like what we've added this summer, between Kevin Hayes and the vets on the back end. We've got an experienced coaching staff. It's exciting. I can't wait to get going."
One of the big areas of team focus heading into next season will be for the Flyers to significantly cut down the team goals against average. The aim is to do this through a combination of more stable goaltending (the continued maturation of Carter Hart, and a healthy season from veteran Brian Elliott), a team-wide commitment to 200-foot play at five-on-five, full-season improvement on the penalty kill and the additions of veterans Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to support a young defense corps that features Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere, as well as Robert Hägg and Samuel Morin.
Laughton points to another area that will be key: improved starts to games.
"Last year, we played from behind way too much early in games. When you are chasing the game, it's tough. You start to take more chances, and sometimes you only dig the hole deeper. I think it's important for us to get ahead early, protect those leads, and then add to the lead. With the amount of draws we win, we should be better in the possession game," Laughton said.
Depth through the middle is vital, and the Flyers have added Hayes to a group that already has Selke Trophy caliber forward Sean Couturier at the top, 20-year-old Nolan Patrick, and Laughton. Laughton believes that the addition of Hayes should be beneficial to the entire lineup, apart from the offensive stats that Hayes is capable of posting.
"Kevin is such a smart player. We've played against him a lot the last few years, because he was in our division [with the New York Rangers]. It's hard to play against him. He's good with the puck and responsible without the puck. I've also gotten to know him a little bit, and he's a good guy. He'll fit right in with our group," Laughton said.
With Hayes aboard, Laughton may return to the fourth-line center role at even strength that comprised most of his games prior to this past season. This projection assumes good health for Sean Couturier, Hayes, and Nolan Patrick. If he plays a wing, Laughton conceivably could move up back into the top nine of the rotation.
"I haven't talked to any of the coaches yet, but I'm very happy to play anywhere they want me. I'm comfortable at wing or at center. Wherever they think I'll help the most, I'll do it. I want to win. That's my focus," Laughton said.
Last season, 30 of Laughton's 32 points came at even-strength, with the other two (a pair of assists) coming shorthanded. He won a career-high 54.2 percent of his faceoffs in 2018-19. Primarily a center, he also played left wing at certain junctures of the season.
A regular on the Flyers penalty kill, averaging 2:14 of PK ice time per game, he was a contributor to the team's significant upswing after Thanksgiving. After a disastrous sub-70 percent first quarter that sank the club's full-season statistics, the penalty kill operated at over 80 percent the rest of the way.
"It's a new season with a new coaching staff, but I think there are some things we can carry over. Things clicked later in the season, in terms of preventing entries -- which is a huge think on the PK -- and making it harder to find the open man when they did get in our zone. We started to move in the right direction. But we need to be better from the start of the season, and be consistent at it," Laughton said
While Laughton's overall season last year was solid, there is room for improvement in 2019-20. Offensively, his overall decent productivity for a player in his role was interspersed with a nearly two-month long goal drought (26 games, 8 assists) between mid-December and mid-February.
"I hit a rough patch offensively for awhile there, but I tried to be the same player. I think I was still playing the right way, even when there were some scoring chances I wished I had finished. It definitely helps when you know that you will be in the lineup and you will get every chance to play through that. Again, I need to thank Gordo, because he believed in me. When you first come up out of junior hockey, you expect to score and you maybe quite as ready for the demands of this league," Laughton said.
With a two-year contract in hand, Laughton got a little added security as compared to a one-year arbitration award. The AAV on Laughton's deal is within the same generic ballpark as what players such as LA's Alex Iafallo (two years, $2.46 million AAV) and Montreal's Joel Armia (two years, $2.65 million) received in their recently agreed-upon deals. Laughton also get the security of an extra year in his contract as compared to a one-season arbitration award.
"I want to be here, and I want to be part of a winning team. My focus is to come to camp in the best shape I've ever been in, and to have a good camp. The bottom line is that I believe in our group here," Laughton said.