The Philadelphia Flyers are the most interesting team this offseason. Not for being a team going through a significant turnover, signing as many unrestricted free agents they legally can, or trading away some aging stars to kickstart a rebuild — instead, the Flyers are interesting for sitting still and making everyone confused.
Just over a month removed from being tantalizingly close to their first Eastern Conference Final appearance since 2008, the Flyers are giving off the sense that they don’t know where to go from here. Aside from depth beyond the NHL roster, the team made their first signing in preparation of next season, inking defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a one-year, $3 million deal.
The overtly offensive blueliner is a solid addition in a vacuum. Just 28 years of age and a couple strong seasons under his belt — including a 60-point campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018-19 — is forcing all signs to point towards an easy win of a free agent signing. But this acquisition was made more out of necessity more than anything.
Matt Niskanen shocked all of Philadelphia when he announced his retirement earlier this month. The long-time defenseman had one year remaining on his contract with the Flyers, providing a key stopgap in the top-four to let young defensemen mature and new prospects grow into a professional role with the organization, while he played out his deal and helped the team reach a similar success to last season.
Instead, the Flyers had to find a replacement on the right side of defense and while the Gustafsson addition is, again, a good one, the blue line as a whole feels very chaotic and unplanned. You can take the seven or so names that are set to make appearances for Philadelphia in 2021, shake them up like a game of Yahtzee, place the names in random order in a lineup, and that can be the blue line on any given night next season.
All of this defense shuffling still leaves one substantial name on the outside of the top-four, looking in. Once heralded as the next offensive great from the backend, Shayne Gostisbehere has lost his touch and trust with the Flyers. Going from making the All-Rookie team and receiving Norris Trophy votes as a rookie, and later scoring 65 points in 78 games in 2017-18, to getting scratched in the most significant postseason appearance the team has made in several years. The 27-year-old has already gone through a whirlwind of responsibility and reputation with this team.
After all of this, it appeared that the most likely scenario, up until a couple of weeks ago, was a change of scenery for Gostisbehere. One that could benefit both the Flyers and the player.
With three years remaining on his contract that carries a cap hit of $4.5-million, the hypothetical Gostisbehere trade was no doubt going to get the “cost certainty” label for his new team. For a blueliner with his previous achievements, knowing that you will be able to keep him on your team, seems like a fairly good deal if you want to ignore his recent play and status with the Flyers.
No matter what a Gostisbehere trade would have looked like earlier, he’s still here and projected to, you know, play hockey for Philadelphia. Despite the Flyers wanting to move on from the defenseman, there is simply no market for the player that he has shown recently and his contract.
Which is why it makes perfect sense to give him a bigger role next season.
Before I really get my shoes dirty from this dog turd I forcefully stepped in, let me talk my way out of it. Gostisbehere is not — and really can not — appear for a different team next season, there is just no way around it, no matter how hard the Flyers want to try. They will not accept a trade like the recent deal that sent Nate Schmidt and his sizeable contract to the Vancouver Canucks, because they are not forced to make the cap room, like the Vegas Golden Knights were.
Gostisbehere will be one of the defensemen on the Flyers’ roster when the season starts, unless a substantial change happens before then. With that type of offensively-gifted player on your blue line, it makes little sense to give him less opportunity to rebuild his value on the bottom-pair. With a recent opening in the top-four and a player that just needs some time to figure it out, it could be beneficial for both sides to use this upcoming season as a quasi experiment on the 27-year-old.
I’m not saying any of this is a guarantee — Gostisbehere can still be a net-negative defensive player and find no luck when it comes to putting points on his stat sheet — but it’s something worth trying.
For someone that is so close to being written off completely and holds the reputation as a player that is not needed within their current organization, he still holds a lot of tools that can make him successful. Just hand him more beneficial zone starts against weaker competition, sprinkle in more power play opportunities, a dash of being on the ice with Claude Giroux, and that’s a stew I like to call Another All-Star Or Jim Benning’s Next Mistake.
Worst case scenario, we’re back to square one and a defenseman that under contract for a couple more years that can only hold a bottom-pair role and make appearances on the second power play unit.
A blue line in tatters, with as much direction as an Ouroboros, Gostisbehere getting back to his former self in a larger role only makes sense.
Wouldn’t you want someone to act like you’re still in your mid-20s and so full of potential, even if you’ve taken a couple steps back?