For an organization that used to be well-known for making big splashes in free agency, it’s a true change-of-pace for the Philadelphia Flyers when their biggest contractual decision of the offseason is the status of an existing player on the roster.
No longer do the Flyers chase down the biggest prize on the market every year. Instead, the most impactful decisions now involve players already in the organization and how they fit for the future, with Shayne Gostisbehere at the very top of that list this summer.
The 24-year old defenseman’s RFA status combined with his place as a key building block for the future made his pending contract negotiation the most important piece of business for general manager Ron Hextall. And the GM wasted no time, locking up the blue liner to a six-year, $27 million contract on Friday afternoon, giving Gostisbehere a $4.5 million cap hit until the end of the 2022-23 season. With two signatures, the Ghost Bear can now be truly viewed as a member of the Flyers’ core.
General fanbase sentiment surrounding the deal was positive, even though Gostisbehere did have a tumultuous sophomore season filled with healthy scratches, awful puck luck, and some legitimately poor defensive zone play. But Ghost remains a fan favorite, and his status as a free agent combined with the coaching staff’s treatment of him during the 2016-17 season had some concerned that negotiations would be difficult.
Gostisbehere signing this early in the offseason implies that wasn’t the case.
But is this a good value signing for the Flyers? Gostisbehere certainly isn’t a perfect player, and seems unlikely to ever become an all-situation, heavy minute force on the back end. Did Philadelphia make the right decision in locking up Ghost long-term?
Is Gostisbehere’s on-ice value make him worth the money?
To build a true contender, a front office first and foremost needs to avoid giving out bad contracts. A great team can survive one or two bad deals assuming they have enough cheap talent to offset it, but with too many overpays a franchise ends up in the situation that the Flyers found themselves in at the end of the Paul Holmgren era.
Since then, Ron Hextall has slowly jettisoned the bad deals while also adding young talent like Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov to replace departed players. It’s a strategy that makes perfect sense considering the state of the Flyers at the moment.
However, the next stage is just as critical. Those young players will eventually need extensions past their cheap entry level contracts, and a general manager has to avoid falling into the same trap that forced a rebuilding process in the first place. That requires a GM to be careful not to overvalue young players, and get as many of them signed to either fair value or below-market value, in order to conserve cap space for future extensions and potential forays into the free agent market.
But just how valuable is Shayne Gostisbehere? After all, he is coming off a season in which almost all of his point production occurred in specialty situations, a disappointment for a defenseman expected to provide offensive punch whenever he is on the ice. His on-ice goal based metrics were very poor, obvious from just a glance at his -21 plus/minus and 37.3% Goals For percentage at 5v5. Yes, Gostisbehere had an amazing rookie season, but what if the Ghost from last season is the one the Flyers will receive over the length of the contract?
The good news is that even if Gostisbehere merely holds steady with his on-ice value from last year, his yearly cap hit is fair for what he provides. Let’s break down each element of his on-ice value — 5v5 offensive and defensive results, power play results, and penalties drawn/taken — in order to understand why.
Gostisbehere is clearly a high-end power play weapon. Despite a 3.57% shooting percentage (54th out of 70 defensemen with at least 100 minutes at 5v4), Ghost ranked ninth among blueliners with a 5.08 Points/60 rate. With that shooting percentage almost certain to go up in the future, it’s legitimately possible that his scoring rates could even improve moving forward, and he’s already an elite point producer on the PP. Combine that with his incredible on-ice shot creation metrics — his 5v4 Fenwick For per 60 of 98.22 is over nine shots higher than any other NHL defenseman — and you’re looking at one of the most effective power play blueliners in the league.
In addition, Ghost is one of the few defensemen in the NHL who draws more penalties than he takes — a underrated way to provide true value to his club. In his two seasons, Gostisbehere has drawn 21 penalties at 5v5 and taken just 19, a +2 differential. Defensemen usually take more penalties than they draw due to the nature of the position, so having one of the only 28 NHL blueliners (his +2 is tied for 10th-best) with a positive penalty differential at 5v5 over the past two seasons is fairly important.
Even strength play is a bit tougher to accurately evaluate. Gostisbehere probably has a positive offensive impact, as the Flyers have averaged 59.18 shot attempts per 60 with him on the ice with his teammates mustering 57.05 without him since he broke into the league. But Ghost does receive cushier minutes than his teammates, in terms of competition, quality of teammates, and zone starts. Even accounting for those factors, my guess is that Gostisbehere’s net impact is at least about break-even when it comes to shot and goal creation at 5v5.
Defense is where it gets tricky. On one hand, Ghost has actually delivered decent shot suppression results relative to his teammates (-0.29 Corsi Against Per 60 RelTM) in his NHL career, but his impact in terms of Expected Goals Against is less than impressive. Basically, Ghost is somewhere between passable (by Corsi) and legitimately poor (by xG) in terms of 5v5 defense.
So where does this stack up in terms of overall value added? DTMAboutHeart’s Goals Above Replacement statistic can give us an idea of the low-end approximation of Gostisbehere’s value last season, since his metric uses a proprietary xG stat as the base to judge 5v5 offensive and defensive contributions rather than unweighted attempts. In 2016-17, Ghost came in at 5.8 Goals Above Replacement, 62nd in the NHL among defensemen. That would place Gostisbehere in the high-end second pair tier in terms of value added to his team.
Now, that ranking shouldn’t be taken as gospel. One can argue that Ghost should be viewed as even more valuable at 5v5 if weighted metrics were swapped out for unweighted ones. On the other hand, DTM’s statistic does not include penalty kill value, which helps Ghost in the rankings since he doesn’t receive those minutes anyway.
In addition, these WAR-type metrics in the advanced stat community are ever changing, and provide more of a general view of value than a hard, fast ranking. Still, high-end second pair feels about right when looking at the total package of Shayne Gostisbehere. And interestingly enough, that’s exactly where his cap hit of $4.5 million per year falls relative to the rest of the league.
Average Cap Hits by Overall TOI Ranking
|Dataset||AAV of #1 Defensemen||AAV of #2 Defensemen||AAV of #3 Defensemen||AAV of #4 Defensemen|
|Dataset||AAV of #1 Defensemen||AAV of #2 Defensemen||AAV of #3 Defensemen||AAV of #4 Defensemen|
|All Players||$5.459 million||$4.488 million||$3.514 million||$3.057 million|
|With Entry-Level Contracts Removed||$5.791 million||$4.896 million||$4.053 million||$3.617 million|
Once you remove the massive savings gained by teams who are using entry-level players on their top two pairs, Gostisbehere’s new $4.5 million AAV comes in right between the average #2 and #3 NHL defensemen on their teams’ depth charts. It sure looks like the price is right for what Ghost provided last season.
And by all accounts, last year seems to have been a down year for Gostisbehere. His on-ice shooting percentages cratered, he was coming off surgery, and he admitted to dealing with confidence issues. Even in light of all of those issues, Ghost was still probably worth $4.5 million last year. If he bounces back at all, this contract looks like a major steal.
What about market value?
This goes hand-in-hand with on-ice value, but isn’t quite the same thing. Theoretically, a contract could provide solid bang for the buck in terms of on-ice value, but still be a “bad” deal for the team because the player received a substantially larger commitment than was given to his closest statistical comparables.
Gostisbehere’s contract, however, was right in line with similar cases. If anything, it was a little below the established market value for players in his situation.
Back on May 15th, I noted on BSH Radio that two interesting comparables for Gostisbehere’s situation were Kevin Shattenkirk in 2013 and Jake Gardiner in 2014. In both cases, the defenseman was 24 years of age, coming off an entry-level contract, and viewed as being better with the puck than without it. Therefore, they both make for solid comparables.
Let’s start with Shattenkirk. At the time of signing his deal, he had played in 201 NHL regular season games, and posted a 0.54 point per game rate in the process. With St. Louis having three more years of RFA control, they gave Shattenkirk a four-year deal that took up 6.61% of the cap ceiling when it was signed, buying out one UFA year.
Gostisbehere entered his negotiations with less games played (140) but a higher PPG rate (0.60) than Shattenkirk. Ghost’s deal buys out three UFA years, which usually comes at the cost of a higher cap hit. But Gostisbehere’s deal takes up 6.16% of the current cap ceiling — 0.45% less than Shattenkirk — despite the Flyers tacking two extra years on the deal.
Gardiner’s situation was slightly different than Gostisbehere’s current one, because even though Gardiner was 24 when he signed his contract, Toronto had four years of RFA control (since Gardiner’s birthday comes just after July 1) while the Flyers had three with Ghost. Still, Gardiner’s 167 NHL games compares well with Ghost, as did the fact that at the time, Toronto (under Randy Carlyle) seemed frustrated with the defenseman’s complete game. Gardiner signed a five-year deal with an AAV that took up 5.87% of the cap ceiling at the time.
Again, Ghost compares favorably. The Flyers bought out three UFA years while Toronto could buy out just one, yet Ghost received only a slightly higher adjusted cap hit (6.16% vs. 5.87%) in return. And that’s even with Gostisbehere being a far more efficient point producer (0.60 PPG) than Gardiner (0.39 PPG) when he signed.
We’re not talking about a gigantic bargain here, but it wouldn’t have been ridiculous to see Gostisbehere get an AAV in the $4.6 to $4.8 million range on a six year deal. Instead, the Flyers locked him at the low end of the plausible spectrum.
But is this deal good for the Flyers right now?
Even if a contract is below (or fair) market value, and the player’s on-ice contribution warrants the money, there is still one other way that it could be considered a mistake for a team. Essentially, it comes down to the current makeup of the roster, and the team’s timeline for success. To use an extreme example, if a team has three above-average starting goalies in their primes, it’s not smart to sign all three to extensions even if each one is willing to take less than he’d receive on the open market. They’d make three good contracts in a vacuum, but a mess when taken together.
A truly great contract for a team fits the current and future plans of the organization as a whole. Shayne Gostisbehere’s deal absolutely qualifies.
The key is the term. Considering Gostisbehere’s relatively late entry into the NHL (22-year old rookie) and the fact that his contract year wasn’t incredibly strong by the boxcar stats, this contract was unlikely to break the bank. Regardless of the length of the deal, there was no real threat that Ghost would be asking to be paid like a No. 1 defenseman.
But the Flyers still could have messed up the situation by pushing for a bridge deal. Giving Gostisbehere a two or three year deal would have resulted in a longer NHL track record and the chance for him to rebound statistically, letting him hit free agency rightfully asking for Keith Yandle-level money. Instead, they bought out three UFA years before Ghost had the NHL resume allowing for him to compare favorably to the offensive defensemen who have broken the bank from a contractual standpoint in their mid-to-late 20s.
The deal also works from a team timeline standpoint. The Flyers are still a few years away from when they project to be legitimate contenders, and they obviously want Gostisbehere around for that period. But in the interim, they have the cap space now to “overpay” Ghost in his RFA years in order to get a value deal in the back half of the contract, when ostensibly the team will be more competitive and in desperate need of cap room during free agency and at the trade deadline. Using excess cap space now in order to save space three years down the line is exactly what Philadelphia should be doing right now.
In addition, the deal allows the Flyers to extract full value from Gostisbehere without being responsible for the bulk of his decline years. While the statistical aging curve does begin trending downward around age-27, the biggest dropoff occurs after age-30, which is right when Ghost’s contract will expire.
Getting Gostisbehere on a reasonable long-term deal also has a domino effect on the other young defensemen in the system. Racking up points is the quickest way for a defenseman to push himself into higher contract asks, and now Ghost will be generating the bulk of the power play points coming from Flyers blueliners for the next six years. Sure, guys like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers all have offensive upside, but it’s harder to consistently post 40+ point seasons without being on the top PP unit. With Gostisbehere owning those minutes, it should be a bit easier to keep the other young blueliners’ contracts reasonable, so long as they pan out at all.
The structure of the deal also provides the Flyers trade flexibility. Gostisbehere’s deal is front-loaded, meaning that he receives more actual salary in the first three years of the contract ($17.25 million) than in the latter half ($9.75 million). Ghost likely just wants his money quicker (which makes sense from an economic standpoint on his side), but because his cap hit will be larger than the real money commitment in the back half of the deal, it makes him just a little more attractive to budget-conscious teams in trade talks, a nice added bonus for Philadelphia.
Of course, every long-term contract comes with risk. Gostisbehere has dealt with injuries during his professional career, and if he misses extensive amounts of time due to various ailments, the Flyers could regret this deal. Truthfully, that’s probably the main reason Gostisbehere agreed to the contract — when you’re a smallish player who has already underwent two surgeries as a professional, a six-year commitment is hard to turn down.
But from a performance standpoint, this is a great bet by the Flyers. Much of Gostisbehere’s “struggles” at 5v5 this year were due to unsustainably poor on-ice percentages that will almost certainly bounce back this season. His performance on the power play has been stellar, and likely due to his dynamic skating ability, he’s showcased an ability to hold a far better penalty differential than most defensemen. Even as a true specialist, Gostisbehere is probably worth his $4.5 million cap hit, and if he posts even merely good 5v5 results over the next six seasons, this contract becomes a flat-out steal.