Time flies and hockey is a river of constant change: Now 26 years old, Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere will play his 5th NHL season and 6th as a pro in 2019-20. This time a year ago, he was seemingly entrenched on the Flyers top pairing with Ivan Provorov and was coming off a 13-goal, 65-point season that also saw him show notable improvement in the defensive zone along with his typically strong neutral zone play and effectiveness on the attack.
This summer, Gostisbehere was the subject of trade rumors. Coming off a disappointing 2018-19 season that saw him regress in his off-puck play in his own zone and also see his offensive production dip significantly (nine goals, 37 points), Gostisbehere's role entering camp under new head coach Alain Vigneault, new defense coach Mike Yeo and new power play coach Michel Therrien might be that of a third-pairing player at even strength along with his customary power play spot. Gostisbehere, the incumbent, is the favorite for the PP1 point role, but Therrien has noted that he wants players competing in camp for spots on the four-forward, one-defenseman units.
Thus far in "Ghost's" career, he has an alternating-year pattern: A Calder Trophy finalist rookie year that saw him set a rookie point streak record was followed by a disappointing second season. A revised training regimen in 2017 helped propel him to an excellent 2017-18 regular season. Unfortunately, that was followed by a disappointing playoff series against Pittsburgh (both for the Flyers collectively and Gostisbehere individually), an excellent 2018 training camp and then a down year during the 2018-19 campaign. That has put his career at a crossroads.
Last September, I wrote an article for the Flyers official website on what has set Ghost apart
from other playes from the time he was drafted by Philadelphia in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
At the time I wrote it, I fully expected Gostisbehere to have a monster season in 2018-19. He shot the lights out during the preseason, and he was coming off such a strong year the previous season. He had seemingly made significant strides in his all-around game the previous season, had a good thing going in a pairing with Provorov and his confidence and conditioning were at high levels.
I never would have predicted that Gostisbehere's subsequent season would, by his own admission, fall so far short of his self-expectations as well as those of the team for him.
"Definitely the toughest season I’ve been personally in my four years. It’s tough for sure," Gostisbehere said on April 7. "I’m not an excuse guy. I mean, I didn’t have the best season, obviously, and I felt I could’ve helped my teammates a lot more. It’s a grind. It was a mental grind this year."
Gostisbehere regressed in his own-zone play without the puck but his even number one asset -- his work on the power play -- suffered as well. In terms of statistical 5-on-5 offensive production, he wasn't horrifically far off the mark from what he had done the previous season (5 goals, 18 assists, 23 points at 5-on-5 in 2018-19 compared to 6 goals, 26 assists, 32 points). On the whole, however, Gostisbehere's season was just about a worst-case scenario. The player's confidence dropped as the season progressed.
"You do the same thing and you expect same results and when it doesn’t happen it’s hard. Go back to mental thing you got to stick with it again I’m going to do the same thing this summer I'm going to train the same way and I’m going to have the same mentality going into camp, I want to get better as a player, I want to be a staple point as a defenseman in this league, one of the better ones not just one who is looked at offensively so it tough when you start a season and you see that net filling up and you see 7 goals against every other game and obviously change has happened. It's tough for sure, it was a tough season in general but again you just got to stick with it and remember what got you there," Gostisbehere said.
At times, Gostisbehere even found himself lacking confidence in what had been his bread-and-butter offensive situations.
"You have to do different things making plays, just like quarterbacks. You do the same thing, teams are going to pick up on it. I still have certain moves that I do every game and they still work but for me it’s a mental thing when a guy is coming at me and I'm, like, 'Will he fall for my fake? Probably not.' You've got have the confidence to just do it and go with it, that’s a huge part of my game just deception and fakes and my movement with the puck so obviously for me it’s just instilling that confidence in myself and going out there and doing it every night."
Gostisbehere said that he dealt with a nagging knee issue this past season that affected his skating to some degree.
"I didn’t have the best pop in my step. It was tough for me. I mean you think about it, too. It’s a pain that its going to happen. You’re going to feel the pain but it is what it is. It was earlier in the season when I got hit in the knee, took the puck. Not in warm-ups. It was [during a game] against Colorado, it was a long time ago. It was a home game. I took a puck in the knee and it lingered. Nothing with the hip or nothing structural or anything like that. It’s just something you deal with. Like I said, it's not an excuse," he said.
While Travis Sanheim took the ball and ran with it after the changeover from Dave Hakstol and Gord Murphy to Scott Gordon and Rick Wilson, Gostisbehere continued to struggle and ended up in a reduced role (eventually on the third pair and then as a healthy scratch in the game where the Flyers were mathematically eliminated). For a time, he was even taken off the top power play unit by assistant coach Kris Knoblauch and Gordon.
"With Rick coming in and different coaches and what not they tweak the style of not just me personally but how he wants the defense to play so I think I wouldn’t say they put handcuffs on me or anything but I’d say they pulled the range back quite a bit just in what they wanted us to do collectively [in terms of carrying the puck] as a D-corps," Gostisbehere said.
Gostisbehere's name came up frequently in trade rumors from April until late June. He has said that he tries to block that sort of thing out, and focus on what he can control: his own preparations.
Two summers ago, Gostisbehere tweaked his summer training routine. After his big 2017-18 campaign, he did almost the exact same routine last summer. Looking for any one percent or two percent boosts he can find, he plans some small adjustments this summer.
"I'm going to do some different things. Maybe skate a little earlier to get my body right and you know I think just little tweaks just here and there with skating and taking care of myself," Gostisbehere said.
Prior to the Flyers hiring Alain Vigneault as head coach, Gostisbehere was one of the many Flyers players who said he enjoyed his brief time with Gordon overall; especially Gordon's communication style.
"It was cool. It was different; a little different then Hak, for sure. He talks a little more and system wise when he comes in the room it’s all systems and different face-off plays. He really comes up to you. He talk. He’s a normal guy. I’m not saying Hak wasn’t but as you [media] guys can tell, they’re a little different. He was a great coach," Gostisbehere said.
"Mostly it was positive with Gordo. If I make a mistake and a coach comes up to me on a bench and tells me about the mistake it's like, 'No shit. I just made the mistake. I know.' I don’t really like that, but who would? Sometimes you need that kick in the ass. I think for us, Gordo was a little animated at times but he just wanted you to be your best player. Again, mostly it was positive stuff."
Vigneault's coaching style and interaction methods
are different than either Gordon or Hakstol. He tends to be less vocal and animated than Gordon, at least on the bench. Generally, Vigneault lets his assistants do much of the day-in and day-out dealing with players and gives his veteran leaders in the locker room leeway to police themselves.
While Sanheim saw his role increase under Gordon and assistant Rick Wilson, Gostisbehere's role was reduced.
In late May, shortly after going back into retirement, Wilson spoke with Elliotte Friedman about the Flyers defensemen for Friedman's 31 Thoughts column
Wilson said that Ivan Provorov was "forcing it a bit" trying to take his game to the next level but has the right attitude and the ability to get there, the play of Travis Sanhein was "very impressive" in their months together, while veteran Radko Gudas (now with Washington) did a good job at staying disciplined, Robert Hägg showed himself to be a "good penalty killer" and that he feels both Phil Myers and Samuel Morin are now ready to be full-time NHL defensemen.
According to Friedman, the only Flyers defensemen about whom Wilson did not immediately volunteer his take was Shayne Gostisbehere. The reporter followed up by asking about "Ghost."
Wilson replied, "I would just say that I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t help him bring more of his best on a consistent basis… He is very talented and it is in there.”
Bounceback seasons from Provorov (still an unsigned RFA) and Gostisbehere, the continued progression of Sanheim and veteran stability from newcomers Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun are the fulcrum of the Flyers' hopes for icing a more effective blueline corps this season. In each and every case, there should be plenty of motivation for each player to put his best foot forward.