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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Shayne Gostisbehere still a key part of team’s future

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An up-and-down sophomore season may have dialed down the hype surrounding the Flyers’ electric defenseman, but his value remains unquestioned.

Kate Frese / SB Nation

In August of 2016, it was basically impossible to find anyone in the Flyers’ fanbase with any negative to say about Shayne Gostisbehere. He had just completed an epic rookie season, racking up 46 points in 64 games, providing highlight after highlight, and finishing second in the voting for the Calder Trophy. As ambitious as it truly was, fans could be forgiven for having dreams of “the next Erik Karlsson” in their heads as the eventual ceiling for their beloved Ghost Bear.

A year later, and the conversation has changed entirely surrounding Gostisbehere. While he is clearly still a part of the Flyers’ future — the six-year, $27 million contract that he signed in June confirmed that fact — Shayne Gostisbehere is no longer the crown jewel of the team’s blueline. That title was passed to Ivan Provorov, who established himself as the team’s No. 1 defenseman in terms of usage before turning 20 years old, and in some ways (particularly in terms of poise in all three zones) had just as promising a rookie season as Ghost the previous year. Gostisbehere, on the other hand, saw his point-per-game rates drop, his on-ice goal results crater, and his ice time cut dramatically at 5-on-5, eventually culminating in multiple scratches from the lineup by head coach Dave Hakstol.

After a rookie year that saw everything go right for Shayne Gostisbehere, his sophomore season was the opposite — an endless road of potholes, from offseason surgery to horrid puck luck to an admitted confidence problem. But in spite of his uneven season, the 24-year still finished tied for 24th in total points among defensemen with 39, drove play at 5v5 to the tune of a 52.18% score-adjusted Corsi, and drew more penalties than he took. It may have been a disappointing season for Gostisbehere in terms of results, but 2016-17 wasn’t a total disaster.

Ghost enters the 2017-18 season facing a simple question — is his true talent level closer to the results from his magical rookie year, or the Murphy’s Law sophomore year? It’s the answer that will determine whether he rivals Provorov in terms of value added to the Flyers over the remainder of his 20s, or if he settles in as more of an offensive specialist better served being stationed further down the defensive depth chart.

No. T-3: Shayne Gostisbehere

Position: D
Age: 24 (4/20/1993)
Acquired Via: 2012 NHL Draft -- Round 3, Pick 78 (Pick acquired from Florida along with a second-round pick in 2012 in exchange for Kris Versteeg on July 1, 2011)
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) - 7 G, 32 A in 76 GP\
Nationality: American
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 3

[Ed. note: yes, we’ve got a tie! Gostisbehere and the player we’ll feature tomorrow got the same number of points across our 12 ballots, and rather than attempt to break that tie we’ll embrace the results that have come in. Said player who will be featured tomorrow had a higher top vote than Ghost, who appeared no higher than 3rd across our 12 ballots, which is why Ghost appears today in the “No. 4” slot and his fellow 3rd-place finished will be featured tomorrow in the “No. 3” spot.]

Shayne Gostisbehere’s 2016-17 season became a classic test case in the “stats vs. eye test” debate. By the numbers, the young defenseman was actually driving play at even strength better than he had during his illustrious rookie year, after grading out as slightly less than break-even relative to his teammates during his first run through the NHL. But the Flyers were outscored dramatically with Ghost on the ice last year, giving many viewers the impression that he had turned into a liability on defense and a non-factor on offense at 5v5. After all, there’s only so many times a fan can see one player raise his head skyward in exasperation after a goal against and not start to pin the blame on him.

The numbers hold that Gostisbehere’s goal differential issues in 2016-17 were primarily due to an abnormally low on-ice shooting percentage (4.84% — worst on the Flyers’ defense) and a mediocre on-ice save percentage (91.67%). That gave him a PDO of 96.51, which ranked 1,107th out of the 1,133 total seasons by NHL defensemen since 2010-11. Only 2.4% of qualifying blueliners have had a lower PDO than Gostisbehere’s 2016-17 mark over the past seven seasons.

This implies that Gostisbehere is due for a rebound season, at least in terms of on-ice outcomes, as I noted in my season review back in May.

The good news for the future is that defensemen who post horrific PDOs in one season tend to bounce back dramatically the following season, so long as they are given regular ice time (as Ghost certainly will receive). Out of the 50 defensemen who posted PDOs below 97 in full seasons since 2010-11, 30 played in at least 500 minutes the following year, and those blueliners averaged a perfectly-respectable 99.45 PDO after their disastrous one.

The lesson here is twofold. First, if a player has a bad PDO year, it doesn’t mean he’s likely to repeat it, even if that poor season is historically awful. Second, the nature of Shayne Gostisbehere’s particular bad year shouldn’t have anyone too worried. The places where he graded out the worst don’t have much in the way of year-to-year repeatability, and while his Expected Goals For percentage at 5v5 (48.38% score-adjusted) was worse than his Corsi, it’s nowhere close to the awful 37.3% Goals For percentage that he posted.

Not only did Gostisbehere’s on-ice metrics tank in a death spiral of the worst luck imaginable, his personal shooting percentages cratered as well. Gostisbehere’s shot quality did drop a bit from 2015-16 to 2016-17, but not to the point that one would expect him to hold a 1.69% Fenwick shooting percentage (the percent of unblocked shots taken by Gostisbehere to go into the net) at 5v5 and a 2.22% Fenwick SH% on the power play. Just like his on-ice metrics, these are almost certain due for a positive regression next season.

What is Gostisbehere’s true talent level?

But merely expecting Gostisbehere’s results to regress next season does not tell us what his true talent level actually is. To do that, it makes sense to combine his 5v5 performance in both his rookie and sophomore seasons, and see how he grades out. The larger the dataset, the more accurate an evaluation becomes, and it’s no different with Shayne Gostisbehere. I completed this exercise back in June when Ghost signed his extension, so let’s take a look back at what I said then about his career performance thus far at 5v5 and on the power play.

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.

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.

We’re looking at an elite power play specialist with second-pair results at 5v5. The on-ice goal metrics may not have shown it this year, but the underlying metrics bear it out: Shayne Gostisbehere, while not a superstar at this point, is a pretty valuable hockey player.

The future for Ghost Bear

Still, Gostisbehere’s entire 2016-17 can’t simply be brushed away with a “it was bad luck, don’t worry about it” wave, for the simple reason that the Flyers’ coaching staff surely will not be doing so. Hakstol showed his hand in this regard by scratching the 24-year old defenseman on three separate occasions last year, for a total of five games. Clearly, he identified an issue with Gostisbehere’s game that could not be explained by low PDOs or unsustainable shooting percentages. The lingering fear among fans during the season was that a rift was developing between the dynamic Ghost and the organization, speculation that the unimpeachable Elliotte Friedman did nothing to quell back in February.

At the end of the year, however, all sides seemed to resolve their differences, if any actually existed. The consensus at Flyers HQ on exit interview day was that Gostisbehere had finished well after regaining his confidence, and was poised for a strong offseason leading into 2017-18. The long-term extension that general manager Ron Hextall gave Gostisbehere in June only provided more evidence that the two sides are committed to balancing the defenseman’s freewheeling style of play and the coaching staff’s understandable desire for positive on-ice results.

But it remains fair to question if this season will impact how the organization views Gostisbehere’s role moving forward. After all, he began the 2016-17 season receiving first-pair minutes, befitting the status of “best” defenseman on the roster. By the quarter pole, however, he was in second-pair territory, and then spent most of the second half of the season used a third-pair blueliner.

Micah Blake McCurdy/HockeyViz.com

He did move back into the role of a #3 defenseman at the end of the year, and players like Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto (who both jumped Gostisbehere on the depth chart at times last season) are obviously not the future of the organization. Even with the emergence of Ivan Provorov as the team’s clear #1, Gostisbehere is — at the moment — the team’s second-most important defenseman who brings extensive NHL experience to the table. Assuming that the expected bounceback of his goal-based results does occur next season, Gostisbehere should be at least a solid second-pair blueliner at even strength and a fantastic power play weapon. The value in that is undeniable.

But Provorov won’t be the last blue-chip prospect looking to push Gostisbehere further down the depth chart. Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers both possess first-pairing upside, and are expected to get their NHL shots by the 2018-19 season at the latest. The ceilings of Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are likely lower, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for either one to end up driving second-pair quality results at even strength with the Flyers.

Basically, the competition is coming for Gostisbehere. In 2016-17, he could afford a down year caused by unfortunate percentages because the Flyers had little else on the blueline beyond Provorov and Radko Gudas. Yet the team still scratched him three times. It’s easy to imagine the leash being even shorter when Travis Sanheim can adequately quarterback PP1 in Gostisbehere’s absence, and Myers can take his 5v5 minutes.

That’s not saying that Ghost can’t elevate his game to the point where it will be tough for any of the coming prospects to minimize his role. Gostisbehere has driven play at a near-elite level for stretches of play (the first half of 2016-17, for example), and his rookie season showed just how dynamic Ghost can be on the attack. It’s fairly easy to envision Gostisbehere receiving (at least) the third or fourth-most 5v5 minutes on the defense for the foreseeable future even as Sanheim, Myers, Hagg and Morin filter into the lineup, while retaining his role as the point man on PP1 for the entirety of his six-year contract.

But Ghost is no longer the “shiny new toy” of the Flyers’ defense. He’s now a veteran, watching as the next exciting young kid tries to win over the fans and his coaches. Gostisbehere is very clearly a valuable defenseman, still in the heart of his prime. But his ability in the coming years to hold off the talented prospects on their way will determine just how much value he provides to the Flyers moving forward.

How We Voted For Shayne Gostisbehere

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
4 3 3 3 4 3 3 4 3 3 3 4

How We Voted At No. 4

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Shayne Gostisbehere Travis Konecny Travis Konecny Travis Konecny Shayne Gostisbehere Nolan Patrick Nolan Patrick Shayne Gostisbehere Sean Couturier Travis Konecny Travis Konecny Shayne Gostisbehere

How The Community Voted For Shayne Gostisbehere

Ranking # of Votes
Ranking # of Votes
1 28
2 100
3 407
4 308
5 95
6 36
7 20
8 14
9 10
10 4
11 1
12 3
13 1
14 0
15 1
16 1
17 0
18 0
19 0
20 0
21 0
22 0
23 0
24 0
25 1
NR 4

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Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: