Let’s not mince words here, Shayne Gostisbehere has been bad to start the 2019-20 season. With just six points in 22 games, Gostisbehere has been healthy scratched the past two games in favor of Robert Hagg. Before we go further, let’s acknowledge that the former is definitely better than the latter. Ghost is one of the most dynamic and electric players — not just defensemen — in the league when he’s clicking on all cylinders.
His up-and-down career so far
The problem is, the gap between his floor and his ceiling seems to be about as big as Sean Couturier’s tooth gap. When Ghost is struggling, he struggles. And look, these things happen sometimes. All star players go through periods of time where they just don’t play well. This wouldn’t be such a huge deal if this was the first time this was happening, but it’s not.
After his breakout rookie season where he single-handedly carried the Flyers to a playoff berth, he only scored 39 points in 76 games after scoring 46 in 64. He was healthy scratched then by head coach Dave Hakstol, but at that point we all felt it was stupid to do so. His underlying numbers were solid, and it seemed as though he was just getting a lot of bad puck luck, and not playing poorly.
The next season, he scored 65 points and finished top-10 in Norris Trophy voting and we all figured he had put the previous season’s struggles aside. Well, next season was another dud, where he put up a career low 37 points. This season was expected to be a bounce-back one for Ghost, and instead we’ve gotten even worse results. Through 22 games, he has the lowest point per game pace of his career at 0.22. So that’s how we got here, but now let’s dive into the decision to scratch him.
In all honesty, there should never be a point where a player as good as Gostisbehere should be playing so poorly that sitting him for Robert Hagg is even a consideration. However, that’s exactly the point we’ve reached. We can moan and groan about Hagg being in this lineup, but it’s not like Gostisbehere left Alain Vigneault with much else to do. He already gave him a new partner in Justin Braun, and while that worked at first, it quickly dissipated.
Of course the argument can be made that “not good Ghost > average Hagg.” While that may be true, is this not what we asked for? True accountability? We heard so much about it with the rookies over Hakstol’s tenure, but rarely with the veterans. This season, Vigneault has not been shy about scratching or demoting veterans. James van Riemsdyk is on the fourth line, Jakub Voracek has been benched mid-game at times this year, this is what we wanted.
We wanted all players to be held accountable, regardless of years in the league. This isn’t a second year Gostisbehere struggling for the first time, this is a 26 year old in his fifth NHL season. He’s a veteran on this team now and should be treated as such. We’ve beaten the dead horse about no more excuses this season, and that results need to come, and the star players need to perform. Well, Ghost is just that. He’s a star, but he’s not performing like one.
Breaking down the metrics
The question arises then about Gostisbehere’s underlying numbers, and if he’s playing as poorly as we think he is from the eye test. At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though his numbers are all that bad, in fact, his Corsi percentage has improved from last season. In delving deeper though, we see he’s slipped in a few areas.
While his raw Corsi has improved from 50.86 last year to 51.24 this year, his Corsi relative has taken quite the hit. From a career high 3.28 to a 0.36, Gostisbehere is still above water relative to his teammates, but not by the margin he was last season. Now while this isn’t a major cause for concern, because if he’s in the positive that’s still good, but compared to his relative last season it clearly takes a hit.
Where Gostisbehere’s struggles are really showing is surprisingly enough in the expected goals column. We know Gostisbehere to be this dynamic offensive defenseman who can jump up in the play, and create offense like a forward. This season however, his xGF percentage is just a 44.36. That isn’t just on pace to be a career low for Ghost, it’s over five points behind his previous career low.
And all of that is before looking at those numbers relative to his teammates, where we see the 18 wheeler go off the cliff. Gostisbehere posts a -6.64 xGF relative percentage, and a -7.57 percent high danger chances for relative. What all of that says is, Ghost has been absolutely horrible this season at generating high quality scoring chances.
Now typically using goals-for percentage isn’t ideal, because a lot of luck can be involved in having good stats in this category. But when combining his poor underlying numbers with his absolutely absurd -20.08 GF percentage. That’s the worst out of all Flyers blueliners except for Sam Morin who of course only played one game.
When Gostisbehere is at his best, the Flyers have at the very least four very capable defensemen on their roster. He simply hasn’t been that this season however, and the Flyers have suffered because of it. There’s been a trend of Flyers fans getting on the bottom six, or bottom pairing defensemen over the past few years and it’s continued into this year. For a while, it was fair because our head coach overused said players, and the team suffered because of it.
But this year, the depth is as good as it ever has been, so now the burden needs to be put on the stars. If this team fails it will not be because of Robert Hagg, or Tyler Pitlick, or even Chris Stewart. I want to clarify that I love Gostisbehere when he’s on his game. He’s one of the most exciting players in the league and he was the first home-grown puck moving defenseman to reach the NHL in this partial rebuild. We don’t just adore Ghost because he’s good, we adore him because he signalled a change of times on defense, and one that we craved.
Yesterday, Gostisbehere came out and said that his issues were caused at least partially from a lack of confidence. This only makes the situation all the more frustrating, knowing he’s doing this to himself.
Ghost: "Mentally, when you’re playing with a lot of crap in your mind and you’ve got a lot of confidence issues, it’s harder to make plays & adapt. ....I’ve just got to realize how good of a player I am and that players like me don’t grow on trees. I’ve got to get back to that.”— Bill Meltzer (@billmeltzer) November 25, 2019
Ghost, you’re right, players like yourself don’t grow on trees. You’re an amazing talent and one of the most fun players I’ve had the privilege of watching since I got into hockey. This team is better with Ghost on it, but he needs to turn it around. At the very least, Vigneault’s comments on the scratchings were encouraging, with him saying this was just a “reset” for him.
AV on Ghost after morning skate: "I like what he can bring. I am expecting a little bit more as far as offensive contribution, but he’s a good young man, works hard. It’s just a little reset for him. We’re playing 4 games in 5 1/2 days. He’s going to be in our lineup real soon."— Bill Meltzer (@billmeltzer) November 25, 2019
So before we start freaking out that Hagg has taken Ghost’s spot in the lineup permanently like I know some people are doing, let’s pump the brakes. AV is fully aware of how good Ghost is, but he earned these benchings. Now, it’s up to him how he responds.
Do you agree with the benchings of Shayne Gostisbehere?
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All data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick