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Shayne Gostisbehere and the (apparent) great divide

There has been a lot of talk about Shayne Gostisbehere’s future as a Philadelphia Flyer and I need to have a session about this ridiculousness.

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Heather Barry - SB Nation ©

Being a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2018-19 regular season has been, to say the very least, absolutely ridiculous. For me personally, I went into this season with lofty expectations of a possible first-round victory during the 2019 postseason, but was driven to insanity by a coach who couldn’t coach and a general manager who couldn’t take charge of the situation. Flat out, this team was awful and all I could do was sit back and watch the fire burn hotter and hotter.

We are all privy to the details surrounding the horrific play of the Flyers up until late December, so don’t worry, I won’t rehash those memories and make us all live through it once more. However, since December 17, 2018 - yes, since Scott Gordon took over as interim head coach and Carter Hart took over as The Savior - the Flyers have catapulted themselves up the standings and are now within shouting distance of a playoff push. If they weren’t in the Eastern conference the road would be more manageable and a playoff berth more likely, but still, this team has the seventh most points in the league since that date after having the third least amount of points up until then.

What ultimately led to this dramatic turnaround was a culmination of many factors, with Carter Hart and his .920 save percentage leading the charge that didn’t just give the Flyers better goaltending, but an injection of the intangible stuff we always hear about directly into the heart of this team. Ivan Provorov is also playing much better hockey in all three zones, Travis Sanheim has stepped into a more prominent role on the top pair, Sean Couturier is seemingly fully recovered from his knee injury and is scoring at over a point-per-game pace. Andrew MacDonald still sucks, but whatever (I’m actually just kidding, he hasn’t been too bad lately). Things have turned around and everyone is mostly happy, but there is one player in particular that has, for some unknown reason, drawn the ire of Flyers Twitter and media alike, which has drummed up quite the ruckus in my heart.

Shayne Gostisbehere didn’t have the best start to the 2018-19 season and this is fairly common knowledge. The issue lately is that while it appears most of the players on this team who were in a perceived “funk” appeared to have slowly gotten out of said “funk”, the Ghost Bear remains wandering aimlessly in a void of darkness somewhere beyond reach. Apparently. A quick search on Google or Twitter would have you believe that his poor play has continued at both 5-on-5 and on the powerplay and that a second regime of coaches and a new GM have been unable to effectively break through to him, causing a disconnect. So, I guess the only course of action is to trade him, right? Ah, not so fast. We need to hash this out and actually think about this before coming to such a rash conclusion. Let the session begin!

Q: Is Shayne Gostisbehere actually struggling at 5-on-5?

A: I want to get one thing straight before I answer this. What this is not going to be is a deep dive into a bunch of numbers. Yes, I am a fan of analytics, but a good friend of ours has already done the legwork on this, so please do yourself a favor, head to theAthletic.com, and read Charlie O’Connors work on this matter because it’s quite impressive (as is all of his stuff).

Simply put, it depends on how you view this supposed struggle. Relative to the ceiling of what Ghost hit last year with his play that deemed him worthy of being a top-10 candidate in the Norris trophy voting, then yes, Gostisbehere has struggled. However, we need to also view this in light of the fact that the entire team struggled to start the season. This wasn’t singularly on Ghost. It didn’t really help that the coach was also giving the top pair of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere some of the toughest minutes and competitive assignments of any defensive pairing in the league. Even still, by the eye test and the metrics, Ghost was the better of the two defensemen to start the year.

Since then, Provorov has turned his play around quite dramatically, while Ghost has only recently started to pick up his play in the last handful of games. Maybe this is what is fueling the fire? Ghost simply hasn’t done the full 180 degree turn that Provorov has over the last two months, so it’s understandable to have some degree of concern about his game, but it’s not like he’s playing bad hockey. In fact, be it by advanced statistics, or the eye test, Shayne Gostisbehere has been one of the Flyers best defensemen for the entire season, but especially since December 17, 2018. So, I have to be honest, I can’t for the life of me figure out why some claim he needs to, or should be traded, or why it even makes sense that the Flyers organization may be ready to move on.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: You want to know how it makes me feel? I’ll tell you how it makes me feel!

...

Sorry, but this whole thing has me a bit worked up. To be quite honest, it makes me feel angry. Shayne Gostisbehere, at best, is a borderline top-10 defenseman in the league. At worst? Ok, so maybe at worst he’s a second-pairing powerplay specialist, but is that a bad thing? At a $4.5 million cap hit, NO! I guess why this has me so worked up is because Ghost is actually performing at rates and percentages better than most of the defensemen on this team in almost every statistical category since the firing of Dave Hakstol. Corsi For percentage, Fenwick For percentage, shots-for percentage, goals-for per 60, high-danger chances-for per 60, high-danger chances-for percentage, goals-for percentage. Ghost is either first or second among defensemen in every single one of these categories. Translate those statistics to rates and he shines even more.

Hell, Shayne Gostisbehere isn’t even the worst Flyers defensemen in plus/minus over that span. That’s right, plus/minus, I went there. Not that it means much, because it’s a worthless stat, but for those who believe it holds weight, there it is. So, again, for the life of me I cannot comprehend why there is a contingent of the Flyers’ fan base that actually thinks trading Shayne Gostisbehere 1) makes sense and 2) should happen. I get it, relative to the Ghost Bear we all know and love he isn’t meeting expectations, but just because a player doesn’t meet expectations over the course of two- or three-month stretch of play doesn’t mean he should be offloaded, especially at his lowest perceived value.

Q: What about the apparent “holes” in his game?

A: Listen. Shayne Gostisbehere is no Chris Pronger while defending his own zone. He’s listed at 5’11” and 180 lbs (so let’s be real, 5’9-10” and maybe 170 lbs), so he’s never going to be the type of defenseman that visually looks like a typical defenseman. Does that really matter though? In today’s NHL, to me, not really. The league has shifted and in my mind the primary functions of a modern defenseman are puck pursuit (how quickly one can get to a loose puck and achieve possession) and breakout plays (their ability to get the puck out of their zone with possession). Yes, being able to win battles and play a physical brand of hockey is a skill, but it’s not as important in today’s NHL.

Despite this, is Gostisbehere really all that bad in his own zone? I said I wasn’t going to dive deep into the numbers, but let’s take at least a quick glance. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Ghost is the second worst defensemen on the Flyers in high-danger chances-against per 60 at 9.61 since December 17, 2018. Still, that’s not too far off from the leader of the pack, Andrew MacDonald (actual shocked face), who is at an 8.46. The real outlier there is Robert Hagg at a 15.06. Over that same span, Ghost is second in high-danger goals-against per 60 at just 0.64. Who is the worst among the group? Travis Sanheim at a 1.66 with Provorov not far behind at a 1.45. Some of this can be attributed to luck, plus the fact that Provorov and Sanheim are facing much tougher assignments than that of Ghost and MacDonald, but I don’t really see a case to be made that Gostisbehere is actually all that bad in his own zone. Is he great? No, and he’s probably never going to be, but even in the midst of an apparent slump he is still able to out-produce the rest of his D-corps both in terms of raw point production and analytic statistics.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: What? When people talk about the holes in Ghost’s game? You give me one player in this league that doesn’t have holes in his game that he can work on. These guys are human, they are imperfect, they are prone to error and are emotional beings. Just because Ghost struggles at “clearing the porch” or winning a puck battle in the corner doesn’t mean we should move our top point-producing defenseman for below his actual market value. Yes, Ghost is struggling to produce at the rate we expect him to produce at, but he is still out-producing every other Flyers defenseman and is signed to a ridiculously team-friendly contract.

You want to talk about holes? This freakin’ guy is making $5,000,000.00 per year to do this on a nightly basis:

Is it just because we expect MacDonald to be bad that we don’t get as riled up about moving on from him as we do Ghost? I’m genuinely curious. How many times do we need to watch Robert Hagg not win a net-front battle that results in a tap-in goal before we start calling for him to be moved? Again, Ghost is not perfect and has parts of his game that can be refined, but moving him for the sake of moving him because we expect more from him during this slump is preposterous.

Q: Tell me about this apparent disconnect you mentioned. Is that a factor?

A: Here we go. Yeah, so apparently there’s some sort of disconnect between the coaches and Shayne Gostisbehere that is resulting in his ice time being cut down in order to teach him a lesson and get him to “play the right way”. In all seriousness does anyone really think that this is a thing? We’ve documented quite well that Ghost has had struggles this year at both 5-on-5 and on the powerplay relative to his norm, but over the last 8-10 games he has been looking more and more like himself, which culminated on February 16 against the Detroit Red Wings. Ghost scored the opening goal of the game and assisted on the game winner in overtime, but more importantly it was his best looking game of the season.

Following this game, Gostisbehere talked at length about being put into the right situations in order to flourish and gain some confidence back in his game. The way it has been spun, however, is that Gostisbehere was taking a shot at the coaches and their usage of him during games. Is this the case? I highly doubt it. It’s certainly possible, but do I find it a coincidence that after interim head coach Scott Gordon and Shayne Gostisbehere sat down to have a chat about Ghost’s game on the Friday night prior to that game against the Red Wings, Ghost comes out and has his most Ghost-esque game of the season? To me, that’s more than just a coincidence. It speaks to me that whatever they talked about in that meeting regarding Ghost’s game was to help get him what he needed to be successful and it worked. Disconnect? I’m sorry, but I have a hard time believing that.

This fire was then only fueled even more the following night when the Flyers inserted Philippe Myers into the lineup and carried seven defensemen for the second game of their home-and-home against Detroit. The time-on-ice numbers after the first and second periods made it appear that Ghost was in the doghouse and only pushed this agenda further along. He had been given the least TOI of all defensemen through the first two periods, even falling behind Myers who was making his NHL debut. Again, driving the narrative that Shayne was being taught a lesson by the coaching staff, the speculation continued about his future here.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: I feel that people are reading into this way too much. Ghost was recently injured and just now seems to be getting back to full stride. With having back-to-back games involving travel it made sense that the coaches may want to get Ghost some in-game rest, lighten his load, and let Myers get his feet wet in the NHL. When push came to shove, Gostisbehere saw crucial minutes in the latter stages of the game, helping protect a one-goal lead late into the third period.

Regardless of all of this, even if there is some sort of disconnect between Ghost and the coaching staff, does that really matter right now? Last I checked, Scott Gordon is the interim head coach of this team. Not to mention the fact that forcing players to “play a certain way”, rather than putting them in a situation and system to thrive based on their skill set is a foolish way to coach. If I remember correctly, the last time this organization traded away a player who didn’t exactly jive with the coaching staff came back to bite them pretty hard and turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. So, if that really is the case and there is a disconnect, that falls on the coaching staff and management, NOT Shayne Gostisbehere.

If you want my honest opinion, Doc, this is all ludicrous. Shayne Gostisbehere is one of the most dynamic defenseman in the entire league when he’s at his best and while no player is truly “untouchable”, it makes absolutely zero sense for this organization to move on from him right now given the current climate of the situation as a whole. Get a legitimate head coach behind the bench who can utilize Shayne to the best of his abilities, be it Scott Gordon or someone else, let him work his way out of this slump and get back to being The Real Ghost of Flyers Past. Let this be the greatest trade this organization has never made, at least for right now.

I’m not saying that moving Ghost is completely out of the question, but selling low on a guy whose ceiling is a top-10 Norris candidate seems pretty irresponsible. Instead, maybe try and get him an actual defensive partner who doesn’t utilize his stomach more than his stick and put him in situations that get the most out of his skill set. Find him a complimentary partner that can help him build his confidence back up and allow him to play the way he needs to play in order to be the Ghost we all know and love.

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