At the end of the 2017-18 season, it looked like Shayne Gostisbehere had emerged as a top-pairing defenceman for the Philadelphia Flyers. Having just started a six-year contract with a $4.5-million AAV, Gostisbehere’s 65-point campaign made him one of the great bargains in the league, and even earned him more Norris Trophy votes than Erik Karlsson.
A year later, Gostisbehere is coming off his worst full season as an NHL player. Removed from the top pairing with Ivan Provorov after only seven games, the Florida-native accumulated only 37 points in 78 games while watching his name surface in trade rumours at the deadline and enduring a late-season benching for Samuel Morin.
As a relatively established asset that the Flyers could use to bolster their forward depth, and with the likes of Provorov, Morin, and Philippe Myers on the Broad Street blue line, trade talk surrounding Gostisbehere has only grown louder.
Gostisbehere’s offence never left him
At first glance, Gostisbehere’s mammoth 2017-18 season is the prime reason that he’s a desirable player, and his subpar 2018-19 year is why he might be on his way out of the City of Brotherly Love. But despite the 28-point disparity, Gostisbehere’s play has remained remarkably consistent at five-on-five.
Whether we look at goals and assists or more variable metrics such as giveaways and takeaways, Gostisbehere’s 2018-19 season is almost identical to his 2017-18 campaign, with both representing an improvement over 2016-17. Impressively, Gostisbehere did this despite the fact that he traded one of the best young defenders in the league (Provorov) for a rotating carousel of partners that started with Christian Folin, included Robert Hagg, Radko Gudas, and Andrew MacDonald, and ended with Myers. Furthermore, a whopping 45% of Gostisbehere’s ice time came with his team trailing, putting any perceived defensive liabilities in context.
Powerless on the PP
Offensive explosions for defencemen are usually fueled by power-play production, and Gostisbehere’s 2017-18 campaign was no exception. The young blue-liner put up 33 power-play points, a number that dwindled to a mere 14 the year after.
The question, of course, is: Why?
While not quite matching the stark differential between the first and second units in 2017-18, there’s no question that Gostisbehere effectively quarterbacked a primary power-play unit featuring the likes of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek. Indeed, Gostisbehere’s individual goal and primary-assist rates, while down from the lofty heights of his breakout season, remain respectable — if he were a Hab, Gostisbehere’s point-production rate last season would put still him just below Jeff Petry (3.17) for the club lead among defenders.
What did plummet between the two years was secondary-assist rate, and that’s something largely outside of Gostisbehere’s direct control. While the Flyers’ primary unit in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 featured the same names (Couturier, Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds) alongside Gostisbehere, the results simply were not the same.
All the members of the Flyers’ primary unit, except for Couturier, suffered production hits in 2018-19, likely due to a degeneration in the unit’s cohesion and scheme. Instead of moving at the top of the umbrella, Gostisbehere uniformly shot from the middle of the ice. Voracek and Giroux maintained their positions at the faceoff dots, but shot from further away. Couturier’s slot presence largely disappeared, and Simmonds moved from the net front to the left side of the goalie. The consequential loss of goal production from Giroux and Simmonds meant fewer assists for the rest of the unit, and this was compounded by the fact that it was the snakebitten players (Giroux: +7%, Simmonds: +5%) who were actually shooting more.
Unsurprisingly, when James van Riemsdyk was introduced in place of Simmonds, the unit as a whole improved considerably. Not only that, but Gostisbehere’s personal offensive numbers roughly double with the Flyers’ prize off-season free-agent signing on the ice instead of Simmonds, from 0.41 goals per 60 minutes and 2.05 points per 60, to 0.91 G/60 and 4.07 P/60.
Yet again, plus-minus needs to be taken with a serious grain of salt
Gostisbehere’s team-worst -20 rating, as well as an apparent falling out with the coaching staff over his defending, have many people questioning the young blue-liner’s ability to prevent goals. However, as we’ve already mentioned, he spent nearly half of his ice time with the Flyers trailing; a situation that necessitated additional risk-taking in order to generate offence from the blue line. Moreover, most of his partners did Gostisbehere no favours in this role, with Gudas, Provorov (shots only), and Travis Sanheim (shot attempts only) being the only players to boost Gostisbehere’s possession metrics.
Through it all (including an NHL-record number of goaltenders), Gostisbehere simply continued to play his game, that of an elite puck-mover and transition player who can control the flow of a game while being more than adequate defensively. Gostisbehere excels at both possession zone exits and entries, and should Marc Bergevin manage to acquire him, would supplant Petry as the Habs’ best puck-mover on the blue line.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Players like Gostisbehere are rare, and the opportunity to acquire them outside of the entry draft are even rarer. If the Flyers are indeed serious about moving their young star, Marc Bergevin cannot let this opportunity to instantly resolve one of his team’s major weaknesses go by — moreso if the rumoured asking price remains a combination of middle-six wingers and mid-tier prospects.