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The rumors of Shayne Gostisbehere’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

Let’s talk about Shayne Gostisbehere’s upcoming season.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Shayne Gostisbehere had a rough 2016-17 season.

Hampered by the lingering effects of both hip and abdomen surgeries, the Flyers’ blue liner struggled to put the puck in the back of the net and struggled to be on the ice when the right team scored at even strength. Thanks to a 3.5 shooting percentage, Gostisbehere managed seven goals and 32 assists in 76 games of work last year. He was also scratched at times last season due to head coach Dave Hakstol’s desire for the defenseman to focus on the defensive side of his game more.

Compare this to Gostisbehere’s rookie campaign in 2015-2016, where he posted 10 more goals and seven more points in 12 fewer games. Thanks to a 15-game point streak and routinely manufacturing highlight-reel plays, Gostisbehere earned enough recognition to finish second in the Calder Memorial Trophy voting behind an impressive season from 57-year-old Artemi Panarin.

Somewhere between these two seasons is what we can realistically expect from Gostisbehere for the 2017-18 season. He won’t post another season shooting 11.2 percent like he did in 2015-16, but he also won’t find himself at the bottom of the league in terms of goals for percentage at 5-on-5 like he did this past season.

What we do know is Gostisbehere is a crafty, offensive-minded defenseman who has some flaws in the defensive zone, but not nearly as many as his biggest detractors claim. That said, there are some big questions surrounding the d-man heading into this season.

As the 2017-18 Flyers season draws near, we’ll be breaking down everyone we expect to make the roster, from the long-time vets to the new guys. For each player, we’ll ask three key questions about their season, and look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios are for the year.

3 Big Questions: Shayne Gostisbehere

1. Can Gostisbehere thrive in the new-look power play?

Since the start of the 2011-2012 season, the Flyers have had either Scott Hartnell or Brayden Schenn serve as a successful lefthanded one-timing option for Claude Giroux on the man advantage. With both players now off the roster, and the lack of an immediate candidate to fulfill this role (Valtteri Filppula?), the Orange and Black will need to most likely find a few new ways to generate dangerous chances on the power play. One strategy would be to find ways to create more space for Wayne Simmonds down low to the goaltender’s right. Another strategy may be to give Gostisbehere more freedom to create from the point or along the sideboards.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Even in what many deemed a down year for Gostisbehere last year, the blue liner posted impressive numbers when Philadelphia was on the power play. Out of 298 defensemen to play in the NHL last season, Gostisbehere finished seventh with 23 power-play points thanks to his 21 assists on the man advantage (fourth in the league), 13 of which were primary assists (second to Brent Burns’ 18). Although he struggled to convert on his shots last season, Gostisbehere didn’t fail to use his shot to create chances. He was fourth with 60 power-play shots, second with 156 individual shot attempts (behind Burns’ again, who had 180), and second with 11 rebounds created (Cam Fowler created 17 for Anaheim). Unfortunately, Gostisbehere’s ability to generate shots from the point on the power play didn’t pay dividends last season. He’ll hopefully receive a little more luck this year, as he and Keith Yandle were the only two d-men with two goals or less on over 50 power-play shots in 2016-2017.

It’s easy to counter these totals by pointing out that Gostisbehere had the second-most time on the power play last season with 284:19, which was only eight seconds less than Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. However, his rate stats don’t drop off too much when compared to other defensemen who had significant power-play time. Gostisbehere finished seventh with a 4.43 assists-per-60 rate, 15th with a 4.85 points-per-60 rate, and sixth with a 32.92 individual Corsi-for-per-60 rate out of 71 d-men who skated 100 power-play minutes last year. It wasn’t just individual numbers where Gostisbehere shined, as he led those 71 defensemen with a Corsi-for-per-60 of 129.99, Fenwick-for-per-60 of 99.81, and shots-for-per-60 of 68.58. The Union College product (if you’ll Pierre with me for a second) also finished fifth with a 29.75 high danger chances for per 60 and fourth with a 9.07 goals for per 60.

Gostisbehere could see more success in man or two-man advantage situations in the upcoming season thanks to the Flyers’ hiring former Erie Otters’ head coach Kris Knoblauch. The former Ontario Hockey League coach was brought in to handle the team’s power play after Joe Mullen’s release earlier this summer. In his four full seasons as Erie’s bench boss, the team finished first in the OHL with a 30.7 power-play percentage in 2013-2014 and 31.2 percent in 2014-2015. The Otters dropped to second in both 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 with power-play percentages of 25.3 and 27.2 respectively. Knoblauch helped Erie to an overall power-play percentage of 28.61 over those four seasons.

The hiring wasn’t just intriguing to Flyers’ fans, which was proven this past week when The Elliotte Friedman illustrated Knoblauch’s power-play structure in his 31 Thoughts column:

10. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Philadelphia had a top-five power play using four forwards and one defenceman on the top unit. During that four-season span, only Washington and Pittsburgh were better. But the Flyers dropped to 11th in 2015-16 and 14th last year. Newly hired assistant coach Kris Knoblauch is trying a new look, four forwards and one defenceman on the second unit, too. The scouting report on Knoblauch’s power plays at OHL Erie:

“They loved to generate chances off the rush. Their group will attack the offensive zone with speed and try a lot of rush offence…not something you see much strategically in the NHL like the OHL, though. Setting up in-zone was much more conventional, but similar to Washington in the sense everyone has a purpose.”

Also: Expect a lot of movement from between the goal line and bottom circle and, “Running that 4F 1D, the defenceman will be very involved. Not just a set up on the half-boards guy.” That could be very good for Shayne Gostisbehere.”

If the rush chances are able to catch the opposition off guard and Gostisbehere is given an opportunity to create more than he was last season, the blow from Schenn’s departure to St. Louis could be lessened greatly from a special teams’ perspective.

2. Will his goals for percentage be poor again?

Gostisbehere wasn’t on the ice for many Flyers’ goals and found himself out there for plenty of the opposition’s at 5-on-5 last season. After he posted a 59.21 goals for percentage in 2015-2016, Gostisbehere posted the lowest goals for percentage of the 114 d-men who played 1,100 minutes at 5-on-5 last season with 37.33. He posted this low goals for percentage despite finishing just outside the top 20 of those 114 d-men with a Corsi for percentage of 52.86 and a Fenwick for percentage of 52.57. Since there is a big discrepancy between his general possession numbers and how they translated to goals for and against Philly, it's safe to say Gostisbehere wasn't too lucky last year. But just how unlucky?

Carolina Hurricanes v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Although the fact he was on the ice for 47 goals against at 5-on-5, which placed him 43rd out of that field of 114 defensemen, it was being on the ice for only 28 Flyers’ tallies at 5-on-5 that killed Gostisbehere’s goals for percentage. His 4.84 on-ice shooting percentage was not only the lowest of any of the 114 d-men who played 1,100 minutes at 5-on-5 this year, it is, according to Natural Stat Trick, the lowest on-ice shooting percentage for any of the 664 1,100-minute 5-on-5 seasons recorded by any defenseman since the 2009-2010 season. Needless to say, this percentage most likely increases, meaning his goals for percentage should also see some sort of an increase.

As for an area of concern, Gostisbehere's 49.75 high-danger chances for percentage isn't the most encouraging sign of things to come. Gostisbehere's skill set is underrated in the defensive zone, since the assumption is any offensive defenseman is poor in defending their third of the ice. However, he has shown the ability to intercept passes with anticipation, break up opposing entries routinely, and serve as one of the better defensemen in the league when it came to exiting the d zone. The one area where this stereotype rings true is the fact Gostisbehere struggles to end the opposition's cycle down low once it's been established. This is illustrated by the fact he was on the ice for 31 high-danger goals against at 5-on-5 last season to finish in the bottom half of those 114 1,100-minute d-men.

To defend the mobile blue liner, this total may be heavily influenced by the fact his two most common defensive partners last year were Brandon Manning (307:15 together at 5-on-5) and Andrew MacDonald (229:04). This would be reason enough for some to explain Gostisbehere's poor numbers in the home-plate area, but let's dig a little deeper. Manning was one of the worst defenders in terms of preventing high-danger chances and goals last season, as his high-danger-chances-against-per-60 rate of 11.08 placed him 88th out of 132 d-men who played 1,000 5-on-5 minutes last season and he finished 127th with a 1.82 high-danger-goals-against-per-60 rate. It doesn't look any better when one looks at both his and Gostisbehere's heat maps from last year when it came to unblocked shots against at 5-on-5.

via / Micah Blake McCurdy

It's not a good look for Manning that both his and Gostisbehere's heat maps are dark red just to the left of the crease, as he played the left side and Gostisbehere played the right side. However, both d-men can receive blame to an extent as there were several occasions last season where a lack of communication, misreading of a developing play, or just an inability to move bodies in front led to one or both of the defensemen out of position while the opposition capitalized from in close.

As for their numbers together and apart, the tandem of Manning-Gostisbehere finished with a 51.33 high-danger chances for percentage while Gostisbehere finished with 48.26 percent away from Manning and Manning finished 44.29 percent away from Gostisbehere. So to say Gostisbehere's home-plate area numbers were negatively impacted by Manning has merit, especially when one considers his high-danger goals for percentage jumped 11.14 percent away from Manning.

When it came to playing with MacDonald, Gostisbehere's high-danger goals for percentage trended in the opposite direction. The mobile d-man posted a high-danger goals for percentage of 50 last year when skating with MacDonald and dropped to 35.29 percent away from number 47. This despite the fact that Gostisbehere posted a better high-danger chances for percentage away from MacDonald while MacDonald's high-danger chances for percentage dropped 7.46 percentage points away from Gostisbehere last season to 47.30.

Along with his on-ice shooting percentage, Gostisbehere didn't exactly receive any luck when it came to how his on-ice puck possession translated to the scoreboard. It's hard to envision a scenario where these numbers repeat for the defenseman, not just because of the amount of luck that bounced in the wrong direction, but since Manning is likely the seventh defenseman this year and that MacDonald will most likely be spending most of his 5-on-5 ice time away from Gostisbehere again. Being paired with Radko Gudas or Ivan Provorov, or even being paired with Sam Morin or Robert Hagg, Gostisbehere should be provided with an easier situation to elevate his goals-for percentage at 5-on-5.

3. Can he play his game this year?

After a rookie season that saw Gostisbehere almost win the Calder Trophy, the Philly rearguard ran into a pair of obstacles with his hip and abdomen injuries, and his coach's distrust in his style of play.

Almost every single time a player is asked if an injury is negatively impacting their play, an athlete will say it isn't because #sports. That's what makes Gostisbehere's quotes to Friedman for his 31 Thoughts' column interesting:

"I feel great on the ice, there’s no doubts in my mind about injuries holding me up,” he said. Were there doubts last season? “Not physically or anything, but I think mentally it takes a toll on you after a while, just thinking things aren’t really working out. (You’re) thinking, ‘Is it my injuries, is it this?’ But this year I have a clear mind and I’m ready to go.”

Gostisbehere also mentioned he and Claude Giroux are 'no-excuse guys' as the pair both battled recoveries from surgeries for the early part of last season before seeming to hit their strides near the close of the campaign. We'll probably never get a straight answer from both Gostisbehere and Giroux, but the fact they both underwent surgeries last summer and both coincidentally struggled for most of the season before finding their game late in the season hints their injuries dictated their play more than they'll admit.

Along with dealing with offseason surgeries, Gostisbehere had to deal with Hakstol limiting his creativity on the ice. Although there were a few players who could have been scratched due to inconsistency and inability to focus more on certain aspects of their games, it was Travis Konecny and Gostisbehere who were left out of the lineup on more than one occasion to teach the young skaters a lesson. On the surface, this sounds like a fair move by the head coach, but when one considers these two were two of the more dynamic playmakers who set up goals on a team that struggled to score the decision becomes a little more perplexing. It didn’t seem to do much for Gostisbehere besides make him a little more hesitant in situations where he would often flash offensive upside.

Moving closer to this season, it seems as though nobody wants that situation to play out again. Flyers’ general manager Ron Hextall showed his commitment to the blue liner by inking him to a six-year deal worth 27 million dollars this summer. The decision to bring in an assistant coach who specializes in producing on the power play with dynamic playmakers could also be a message to Hakstol. Whether it was Hextall or just a different approach, Philly’s head coach sounds like somebody who is willing to utilize Gostisbehere to his fullest. Yet again from Friedman’s 31 Thoughts, Hakstol had this to say:

“Honestly, what I’ve seen is a mindset to make sure he’s staying positive. That doesn’t mean he’s being soft on himself. It means being positive and confident. The dedication of his summer is what builds confidence. He put in the work. When you do the work and do the prep, you feel better. Maturity is figuring out what you have to do, and be disciplined every day. He’s done that.”

With both his hip concerns and his coach’s concerns hopefully past him, we’ll see if Gostisbehere can return to the play from his strong rookie season.

Worst-case scenario

Somehow, Gostisbehere’s unlucky streak in terms of 5-on-5 goals continues. On top of that, the loss of Schenn and an unfamiliarity with the implementation of Knoblauch’s system cause Gostisbehere’s power-play numbers to take a hit. Throw in the fact his struggles to break up opposing cycles continues and Hakstol could find himself benching Gostisbehere occasionally through the season again. Lack of inconsistency and a large sample of on-ice presence for goals against lead to a large segment of the fan base questioning whether or not he should finish out his contract in Philadelphia.

Best-case scenario

A big increase in on-ice shooting percentage and being paired with an effective defensive-minded partner to help limit opposing high-danger goals against creates strong 5-on-5 numbers. Pair this with Gostisbehere putting himself into the conversation as being one of the elite power-play assets across the league, and it’ll look as though the rumors of Gostisbehere’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

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