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Ghost busted?

Following up on a conversation from the last two postgames

NHL: OCT 09 Devils at Flyers Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How good is Shayne Gostisbehere?

Three-hundred-two games into his career, can we come to a consensus regarding the 26-year-old defenseman’s ideal role or ultimate ceiling?

I planned on writing this article a couple of days ago, but it didn’t work out that way, and now Ghost is a major topic among the Philadelphia faithful. But it has come up on the last two postgame podcasts, so this seems like a good time to expand on the Ghost issue.

(If you need to catch up on the conversation, here are the last two postgames, for your listening pleasure.)

Let’s go back in time. Since getting his full-time call-up to the NHL in 2015-16, Ghost has registered some eye-popping numbers, earning a runner-up nod for the Calder Trophy in 2016, and finishing tenth in Norris Trophy voting in 2018.

The former third-round pick out of Union has scored 187 points in his career, good enough for 15th most among the league’s blue-liners since his rookie season. Ghost has more points in fewer games played than Dougie Hamilton and Alex Pietrangelo over that span. His points-per-game average is equal to Drew Doughty’s. This is elite company.

But Shayne just hasn’t looked like Shayne lately.

Through four games this year, Ghost hasn’t picked up a single point. Travis Sanheim (1 assist), Robert Hagg (1 assist), Justin Braun (1 assist), Matt Niskanen (1 goal, 2 assists), and Ivan Provorov (1 goal, 2 assists) have all found their way onto the scoresheet, making Gostisbehere the lone defenseman to dress for the Flyers and not pick up a goal or an assist yet.

Obviously, it’s incredibly early. There are 78 games left. That’s more than enough time to turn a slow start into a career season. I get that. But it’s hard to say I’ve really liked what I’ve seen out of Gostisbehere so far. And Tuesday night in Calgary may have been Shayne’s worst game thus far.

Ghost took a penalty nullifying a power play after thirty seconds on the man-advantage, and had a pair of turnovers making bad decisions with the puck through the neutral zone. Unfortunately, those were really the only times he stood out. Although, the former offensive dynamo did register a pair of shots on net, the first time he has been able to hit the goalie more than once this season. Through his first four seasons, Gostisbehere averaged 2.5 shots on net per game.

The most concerning part of Ghost’s game might be his ineffectiveness on the man advantage. Philly’s power play went 0-for-4 on Tuesday. While the Flyers’ power play had scored four goals in three games, all but one was potted by the second unit, with Travis Konecny factoring into all three for his group. The “top unit” has only found the back of the net once, on the quickie off the draw by Kevin Hayes early in the third period against the Devils.

For Ghost himself, he’s struggled just finding the net as the trigger man from the point. The NHL shot reports credit Shayne with two shots on net on the power play this year. Natural Stat Trick credits him with one. That just isn’t enough from a guy with 12:30 TOI on the power play this year, tasked with getting shots through so the power forwards like James van Riemsdyk and Hayes can do their thing.

But Ghost’s struggles on the power play go beyond just these first four games.

In his final 63 games last season, Ghost scored a mere 2 power play goals. That’s supposed to be his thing.

Ghost’s 92 career power play points trail only Brent Burns (111), Keith Yandle (99), Torey Krug (99), John Carlson (98), and Victor Hedman (96) since entering the league.

Gostisbehere has as many points on the man advantage as a guy, maybe you’ve heard of him, named Erik Karlsson, since 2015-16. His 21 power play goals are seventh-most by a d-man since entering the league.

So what has happened?

The first unit, overall, isn’t clicking like it used to. The absence of Wayne Simmonds in front of the net, and Jake Voracek’s inconsistent power play production (TK FOR PP1!) could very well be playing a role, as could be the scheme changes that have moved the two puck handlers flanking Ghost over the last season. But as a senior member of the unit, Ghost is tasked with making the power play go, and he just hasn’t. He appears hesitant to shoot, and that hesitation has carried over to all strengths.

Through four games, Ghost has only five shots on net, but what is more surprising is he only has 11 total attempts (5 blocked, 1 miss).

Yes, it’s good that the Flyers, as a whole, are taking fewer shots from the point than they had under the previous regime. But not all shots from defensemen are created equal. Ghost stepping into one from the high slot is a scoring chance. Radko Gudas, for example, blasting away from along the boards at the top of the right point isn’t. If Shayne has a lane, he needs to rip it.

While shot selection has been an area Gostisbehere has needed to work on, or more specifically, shot accuracy, No. 53 needs to let it fly a little more. Of his five attempts that have reached the netminder, three are slap shots and two have been wristers. The Ghost Bombs have gone missing.

I don’t know if there’s an injury issue or not, but Ghost’s hesitancy to shoot thus far has looked just a little reminiscent of Chris Pronger’s hand/wrist injury that hindered his shooting ability in the second half of 2010-11.

Disclaimer: This is just an observation, and should in no way be taken as more than speculation from a guy looking for an excuse for a player he really likes. Anyway...

Whatever the cause, Shayne Gostisbehere just isn’t threatening opposing defenses and goaltenders like he used to.

So what are the solutions? While Ghost needs to pick his game up and start playing better, smarter hockey, there are some things that Alain Vigneault and the coaching staff can do to put one of their most talented players in better position to succeed.

Gostisbehere’s most common D-partner at even strength has been Robert Hagg. The two have spent over 41 minutes together thus far, and from a shot-attempt differential standpoint, the two have been subpar.

With Ghost and Hagg on the ice together at even strength, the Flyers are only accounting for 47.3% of the total shot attempts.

Lots of people have lots of thoughts on “advanced stats,” and while I don’t believe the stat known as “Corsi” to be the be-all, end-all, I will say this number gives a look at who is spending more time on defense than offense, and, personally, I want Shayne Gostisbehere playing offensive hockey. That’s what he’s here to do.

What’s interesting is that, despite his sub-50% Corsi-For percentage playing alongside Hagg, Ghost actually has a 53.77 CF% at even strength this year.

Looking at the alternative pairings, Gostisbehere, in very limited ice time, has been in a position to create much more offense away from Hagg.

In a mere 4:22 together, Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have been on the ice for nine Flyers shot attempts and only two against (81.82 CF%). The scoring chances with the pair, who were absolutely dynamic together in 2017-18, on the ice together are 3-0 for the orange and black, including one “high danger” chance.

Alongside Niskanen for just 2:40 at even strength, the shot attempts are 4-1 for the Flyers (80 CF%), including a 2-1 advantage in scoring chances and a 1-0 advantage on the real life scoreboard.

The much talked-about pairing with Braun hasn’t been nearly as good as it eye-tested in the preseason, having been doubled-up in shot attempts at even strength, 6-3. Sure, they’ve only played 5:54 together, but given the success of Braun and Provorov together (shot attempt advantage 51-38 for a damn good 57.3 CF%, while accounting for 60% of the expected goals and 68% of the scoring chances; yes, they have been outscored 4-1 but that won’t hold. Those numbers should turn around to reflect the advantage in every other metric), it seems like Ghost and Niskanen would make a great pair moving forward.

Now, that leaves an issue of what exactly to do with Hagg. Nobody wants to see Sanheim demoted to the third pair, but in their brief 4:16 together at evens, Travis and Robert have a 54.55 CF%, with a 4-1 scoring chance advantage. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Again, it must be acknowledged that outside of the three most used pairings (Provorov-Braun; Sanheim-Niskanen; Gostisbehere-Hagg), there really isn’t close to enough of a sample size to draw definite conclusions. But we’ve seen enough of the Ghost-Hagg pair in the past and present to know we’re not going to get the best version of Gostisbehere when they’re on the ice together.

Since 2017-18, Ghost and Hagg have played over 500 minutes together at even strength, posting a 46.43 CF% (they’ve been out-attempted 510-442) and have been consistently out-chanced (235 scoring chances against, 212 scoring chances for) by opponents. We know what this pair is, and it isn’t good enough.

Now, is Ghost the most adept at hiding Hagg’s flaws? Would Hagg be further exposed with another partner? That could very well be. But to what detriment to the team, overall?

If Ghost keeps Hagg afloat, but Hagg drags Ghost’s dynamic ability down to average, how does that help the Flyers win hockey games? I understand the thought that Hagg is going to spend a decent amount of time in his own zone, regardless, so pairing him with a partner who can get to loose pucks and lead a breakout via passing or carrying the puck might be a solid fit for him. But the point of hockey is to score goals and if Ghost has a partner who can better aid him in getting to the offensive zone, Philadelphia will score more goals.

Obviously, the “easy answer” is to recall Phil Myers to replace Hagg in the top six.

That strategy will, in all likelihood, play out as the season progresses. But in the meantime, they have to get Ghost away from Hagg.

It doesn’t solve all of Gostisbehere’s issues. It won’t make him take more shots, or hit the net more often, or stop him from making bad decisions out of frustration. It won’t improve the top power play unit. But it could do the one thing that Ghost needs to be more effective at even strength, and that’s getting him on offense.

Once Shayne starts having more overall success, the specialized parts of his game could be boosted by increased confidence. We all know Gostisbehere is an emotional player and can let outside factors affect his performance, and let frustrations in one part of his game carry over to the other parts.

So why not make it a little easier on him at 5-on-5, and then see if a more effective Shayne Gostisbehere emerges in all aspects? We’ve seen what he can do in the past. We watched him out-duel Johnny Gaudreau in the Frozen Four. We were in awe of his 15-game point streak as a rookie. We’ve seen the game-winners, and the blasts from the point, and even the occasional Niklas Kronwall impression.

So, exactly how good is Shayne Gostisbehere?

I don’t know that I can give you a straight answer, even after 302 regular season games. But I do know the Flyers need him if they want to be a special team this year, and both he and the team have to figure out how to maximize his incredible raw talent.


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