After a two-game cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, Shayne Gostisbehere is back in the NHL. Like a year ago, the circumstances are similar as the former Union College standout joins the big club to spell relief to an injury along the team’s already feeble blue line.
With their top scoring defenseman and alternate captain Mark Streit on the sideline this time around, the former third-round draft pick will now have the opportunity to show just how NHL-ready he is, which could ultimately impact the immediate futures of both Gostisbehere and the Flyers.
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It’s no secret Flyers general manager Ron Hextall isn’t hip on the idea of rushing prospects through the system. When Gostisbehere was called up to help fill the void left by Andrew MacDonald and Braydon Coburn, the then first-year GM made it known he had no other choice.
“Nothing has changed in terms of my vision or plan necessarily, other than we called a player up that I didn’t necessarily want to call up this early,” Hextall said prior to calling up the inexperienced prospect, per NJ Advance Media. “You get two guys out, how do you plan for something like that, especially guys that play 20-some minutes? What do you do?
“One thing I’m not going to do, I’m not going to sacrifice and not give this team a fair chance at winning a hockey game for the wrong reason.
“Now am I excited about Shayne being in the lineup? No, not really. I expect he’s going to do a good job for us, but I’d would have liked to see him down there (in the AHL) for a longer period of time.”
Hextall's finally bringing up the kids thanks to Streit's injury. These next 6 weeks with Gostisbehere and Leier should be a good benchmark
— Mary Clarke (@marycclarke) November 14, 2015
Throughout his brief tenure with the Flyers last season, Gostisbehere’s deployment was identical to Hextall’s sentiment.
Under former head coach Craig Berube, the 5-11, 160-pounder was sheltered on the blue line’s third pairing, earning the team’s most favorable relative zone start percentage while averaging 12:34 of ice time in two games.
Gostisbehere’s plus-24.01 percent five-on-five relative Fraction of offensive vs. defensive zone starts not only led all skaters who appeared in a minimum of one game, it was also nearly three percent higher than Mark Alt’s plus-21.88 percent showing, and over 10 percent higher than Oliver Lauridsen’s plus-13.82 percent mark.
Had it not been for a season-ending ACL injury last season, however, it’s likely Gostisbehere would have called up again for those numbers to change.
As it turns out, that reality would have to wait until this year as the 22-year-old joins a Flyers defense that’s combined for a grand total of 17 points through the team’s first 16 games, with nine of those points belonging to the idle Streit.
Team Defense is something the Flyers ain't exactly excelling in.
— Rob Parent (@ReluctantSE) November 13, 2015
Adding to the challenge for the young defenseman, the Flyers boast only two defensemen with an even-strength SAT percentage above 50 percent (Radko Gudas and Luke Schenn) heading into their tilt against Carolina on Nov. 14.
With the Flyers struggling in multiple faucets, however, Gostisbehere’s arrival very well could give his team a kick-start, which would be crucial with Streit on the shelf for four-to-six weeks.
Tim Panaccio of CSN Philly writes:
The Flyers need to generate more off the back end and Gostisbehere’s skating ability would seem to be a much-needed addition. The Flyers are averaging just 1.81 goals a game, second fewest in the NHL.
Despite recording only two shots in his pair of games with the Flyers last season, Gostisbehere is known as an offensive defenseman with a blistering shot from the point.
After fully recovering from his ACL injury suffered last year, his early production this season for Lehigh Valley of the AHL could potentially be a highlight trailer of things to come.
With only 23 professional games under his belt heading into his second stint in the NHL, it’s highly unlikely to hear Hextall lobby for an extended stay for the former World Junior Championship gold medalist, that is, of course, beyond necessity.
That hasn’t deterred Gostisbehere, though, who’s had his sights on his return to the Flyers as far back as this year’s prospect camp in July.
“I got my cup of coffee per se last time,” Gostisbehere during this past summer’s prospect camp, via the Courier-Post. “Of course, next time I want to go up there and stay up there, stay a little longer. It was definitely a nice experience and I want to keep it going.”
In order to keep that experience going this time, the Florida-born defenseman will have to build off his encouraging start to the campaign with the Phantoms.
Through 14 games in Lehigh Valley, Gostisbehere sits fifth in team scoring with 10 points from two goals and eight assists. Two of those points were notched on the power play, trailing only Tim Brent for the team lead, while owning such distinction in shots with 47.
That’s actually impressive, given his “lack of experience,” and the journey back from injury.
John Romano of the Philly Sports Network writes:
One of the last players cut in training camp, under the guise of “needing to work on his play without the puck” (which is a lie), Ghost has been solid, if unspectacular so far. In a league that tends to favor energy and hard-nosed muck and grind style hockey over the speed and finesse of the NHL, it is not exactly surprising that the physical embodiment of finesse in the Flyers system isn’t exactly turning the league on its head. I have said it for 2 years now that he would have been better off developing in the NHL with controlled minutes and being gradually eased into a top 4 role than he is trying to play a style of hockey in the AHL that just doesn’t suit him.
The argument over Gostisbehere’s development in the AHL versus controlled minutes in the NHL are intriguing, with each side holding validity of its own.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is an example of a top defenseman molded with a watchful eye and a somewhat controlled NHL environment. Unlike Gostisbehere, however, the former second overall pick skipped the AHL experience completely, jumping head-first into the league as an 18-year-old rookie.
Furthermore, the Flyers drafted Gostisbehere out of college, which is considered the closest level of competition to the professional game, not to mention he’s likely the most NHL-ready of all defensive prospects within the system.
But at 5-11, 160-pounds, the former Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player is no Hedman, as it pertains to size, anyway.
The Swedish defender stands at a hulking 6-6, while his 229-pound frame is sizable enough to withstand the grind of the NHL’s lengthy season, and the bundle of minutes that accompany such a gauntlet.
In addition to the obvious differences of the two, Philadelphia’s second-year GM has left no ambiguity as to how his method of developing young talent would play out.
“It’s been proven, year over year, for as long as I’ve been in the game, that bringing young players in too early is suicide,” Hextall said back in September, per Broad Street Hockey. “We’re not willing to do that. We want to bring our young players in, but again, we don’t want to force them. The worst thing you can do to young players is force them to a level they’re not ready for.
“We don’t want a kid who potentially, a first- or second-line player, maybe starting off on your fourth line, and playing, y’know, six or seven minutes, and as the game gets richer mid-season, all of a sudden, less, and maybe you start sitting out, it’s just not good for the development of young people, young players, and again, it’s been proven over and over.”
While defensemen such as Hedman, or L.A.’s Drew Doughty are exceptions to the rule, Hextall is correct in his developmental assessment.
Of the top five Norris Trophy vote-getters from last season, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Doughty were the only two who never appeared in an AHL game, although Karlsson did play in 45 games for Frolunda HC Goteborg of the Swedish League.
Of the other three, only Nashville’s Shea Weber appeared in less than 70 games in the AHL, skating in 46 tilts for the Milwaukee Admirals for part of the 2005-06 season.
As Hextall has reiterated time and time again, though, each prospect possesses his own timetable. And while Gostisbehere could stand to gain more seasoning with the Phantoms, his opportunity to make a lasting impression is now – whether anyone likes it or not.