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Sabres Want Cates, Not Laughton From Flyers

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As the 2024 NHL trade deadline approached, Scott Laughton of the Philadelphia Flyers was a player speculated to be on the radar of the Buffalo Sabres. That speculation increasingly grew into strong hinting from Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, whether on the “32 Thoughts: The Podcast” or his daily radio show. As Marek wondered about the Sabres’ pursuit of Laughton, another name emerged as a darkhorse candidate – Noah Cates.

The center situation in Philadelphia is an odd one. Morgan Frost started the season bouncing in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch but became the Flyers’ top center by season’s end. Sean Couturier, named captain during the season, went from first-line center to fourth-line and occasional healthy scratch. The team acquired Ryan Johansen in the Sean Walker deal, only to relegate him to the AHL. His NHL future is uncertain.

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That leaves a trio of defensive-minded centers in Laughton, Cates, and Ryan Poehling. All six centers are under contract next season, meaning any off-season additions at the position would likely push someone out. Given the team’s build and cap hit, Laughton and Cates are the most likely casualties.

Scott Laughton

Scott Laughton Philadelphia Flyers player comps

Laughton is the kind of player who does very noticeable things on the ice. He’s physical, shoots a lot, is involved in scrums, and draws a fair amount of penalties. As you can see from his attributes, there’s also an element of playmaking in his game, with a good number of shot assists.

The problem with Laughton is that he’s been used as a shutdown center, failing to perform up to par in the role. Based on his most similar players, he should be deployed as a complementary bottom-six forward instead.

Regarding impact metrics, Laughton’s 2023-2024 season looks abysmal. Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM chart (regularized adjusted plus-minus) paints him in a negative light. Sub-zero impacts in goals-for, expected goals for and against, and shot attempts for and against.

PuckLuck’s new WAR metric (wins above replacement) ranks Laughton as the worst player on the Flyers per 60 minutes. Below-replacement impacts at even-strength defense, powerplay offense, and shorthanded defense cost his team a little over three points in the standings based on his usage.

While performance can differ from year to year, this past season is Laughton’s third straight with negative impacts. Trading for the checking center would not only cost the Sabres an asset or two but also effectively be a detriment to the team’s quest to find the playoffs.

Noah Cates

Noah Cates Philadelphia Flyers player comps

While Cates is deployed similarly, he’s much more effective as a defensive forward. Unlike Laughton, his shot volume is about average and he is not very physical. Instead, Cates uses his awareness to take care of the defensive zone and drive play up the ice.

His most comparable players around the league play bigger roles on their respective teams, with Connor McMichael getting run as Washington’s top center. Frost is more offensively-proficient but makes the list. Then there’s Ilya Mikheyev, Jordan Martinook, and Pius Suter who, at times, supplemented some of their teams’ top players.

Cates’ impacts are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Laughton. He’s been the Flyers’ best player over the last three seasons per WAR. On top of that, his penalty killing in particular has been off-the-charts good the past two seasons. With good defensive metrics making him reliable at even strength, Cates was only detrimental to the powerplay.

Sabres Fit

The Sabres are searching for a third-line center. If they want someone who can match up against top competition, Cates could fill that role. Powerplay spots are already filled by rostered players, eliminating a need to force him into a role that doesn’t suit him.

Instead, Buffalo can free Dylan Cozens from matching up against the top offensive opponents and turn him loose offensively. Cates could center Jordan Greenway and Zach Benson, in theory, to form one of the better forechecking and shutdown lines in the NHL.

With one year left at a $2.625 million cap hit, the cost to land the 25-year-old Cates is uncertain. He’ll be a restricted free agent after next season.

He’s not a prolific scorer, with 18 points in 59 games this past season. It’s reasonable to believe a “B”-level prospect could start the conversation. After all, Cates himself was a fifth-round draft selection.

Circling back with Flyers general manager Daniel Briere to sway him to move a center is a good idea for the Sabres. If they can pull it off, Cates should be the target.