VOORHEES, N.J. — The 2012 NHL entry draft is an excellent case study in how the career of an NHL prospect and the future of a first-round pick can venture in one of two directions.
Scott Laughton was the Flyers’ first-round selection that year, taken 20th overall. Laughton can begin to comprehend how that fork in the road has affected two guys selected just before him.
The Buffalo Sabres had a pair of first-round selections. With the 12th overall choice, the Sabres snatched Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, who was ranked third by NHL Central Scouting among all North American skaters. The Sabres came right back two picks later and grabbed another projected first-rounder, but not nearly as touted, Latvian Zemgus Girgensons.
In Grigorenko’s defense, Buffalo rushed him to the NHL at the age of 18, and clearly before he was ready. Over the course of the next three seasons, he bounced back and forth between the NHL and the AHL while never fully grasping that his skills weren’t quite good enough to be a top-six forward. In my conversations with coaches and GMs, Grigorenko also had a belief that he was a “superstar-in-the-making” whom the coaching staff was holding back and felt the “grunt work” of killing penalties and playing solid defense was reserved for players drafted much later than him. In 2015, the Sabres utilized what little value Grigorenko had left and shipped him to Colorado in a multi-player deal for star Ryan O’Reilly.
At 18, Girgensons, unlike Grigorenko, spent the year he was drafted with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans. Because Girgensons committed to play in the NCAA and elected to go pro, he was eligible to play in the AHL. Girgensons developed more of a “blue-collar” approach as an effective penalty killer and has become the Sabres’ shutdown center who plays a very solid defensive game and is tough along the boards, all while continuing to improve at faceoffs.
Laughton, who was seated not too far from both guys at that draft in Pittsburgh that year, is starting to figure out the best way to secure an NHL job is taking the Girgensons approach to the game, and not the one paved by Grigorenko.
“I think I was caught in between there for a little bit, and that’s why I was up and down,” Laughton said Monday. “I still think I can be an offensive threat and be a good offensive guy, but I think I’ve got to take care of my own zone. I think just taking that defensive approach. I think that’s what’s going to help me stay in this league.”
Laughton’s evolution as a better two-way player was evident during Sunday’s preseason opener against the Islanders when the line of Laughton, Matt Read and Michael Raffl was tasked with shutting down the Isles’ top line of John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee. Even though Tavares scored twice, his tallies weren’t at the expense of Laughton or his linemates.
“I thought playing to his role, he did an outstanding job — in the faceoff dot, killing penalties, strong two-way play," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Sunday. "He did a real good job."
Laughton may have been the Flyers’ forgotten recent first-rounder last season after spending the entire year, minus two games, with the Phantoms in Lehigh Valley. The experience was immeasurable, as he sacrificed offensive glory to become the type of player the organization had envisioned.
“I think that was the biggest thing, not playing power play, just being down there taking key faceoffs and just finding my role I think,” Laughton said. “It’s nice when you have a good year in the minors. I know it’s a different league. I’m kind of building off last year and that’s what I’m trying to do. Just coming to camp, be prepared and play hard against guys. Do what I did last year and it’ll take me a long way.”
General manager Ron Hextall recognized that progression and elected to protect the younger Laughton in the June expansion draft over 32-year-old Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had established himself as a solid checking-line center during his three years in Philadelphia.
“Definitely was a surprise,” Laughton said of being protected. “I didn’t see it coming at all, but it felt good. I’ve been in this organization for five years now and I’m still trying to stick around and become a full-time NHLer, and I truly believe this is my year.”
Perhaps Laughton will develop into the Flyers’ version of Girgensons, one of two All-Stars from that 2012 draft class, who just re-signed with the Sabres for two more years at $3.2 million. As for Grigorenko, the Colorado Avalanche, unquestionably the worst non-expansion team in the NHL entering this season, elected to cut him loose this summer. Grigorenko inked a deal in July to play in the KHL. A promising one-time prospect‘s NHL career appears to be over at the age of 23.
• The Flyers cut two more players from their training camp roster, which now stands at 55. Forward Anthony Salinitri was returned to his junior team, the Sarnia Sting. Defenseman Frank Hora will report to the Phantoms starting Thursday.
• Hakstol elected to split his two groups Monday into an NHL morning group and an AHL afternoon group, although the two teams will be combined when the Flyers play split-squad games against the New York Islanders Wednesday — one at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the other at Barclays Center in New York.
• Forward Wayne Simmonds was not on the ice for Monday’s practice. Hakstol said Simmonds was given a maintenance day.
• For the first time since camp opened Friday, the Flyers worked on Hakstol’s systems, which included more structure on the team’s breakouts. Much of the focus through the first four days has been on individual battles in close quarters. One drill included intense 1-on-1 play with a goaltender at one end of the faceoff circle and another goalie directly across from him. “It’s important in today’s hockey because every single team overloads in the defensive zone,” Jakub Voracek said. “You need to win those battles, 1-on-1 and 2-on-2, they’re really important."
Monday's lines and pairings
Oskar Lindblom-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek
Dale Weise-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Taylor Leier
Jori Lehtera-Valtteri Filppula-Colin McDonald
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Matt Read
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Sam Morin-Travis Sanheim
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas