Flyers Have a Big Decision on Gostisbehere

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere has experienced peaks and valleys during his time in Philly. He went from being an electrifying rookie sensation during the 2015-16 season to being a healthy scratch the following season. His roller-coaster ride with the Flyers includes a 65-point season in 2017-18 and extended periods out of the lineup due to both injuries and poor performance under the two-year tenure of Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault.

Gostisbehere, now 28 years old, finished the 2020-21 season with 20 points in 41 games. He led all Flyers defensemen in average minutes per game on the power play, and he was seventh in the NHL in goals among defensemen when the Flyers completed their regular season schedule on May 10.  

He was waived by the Flyers on March 30 and cleared the following day. The decision was largely interpreted as a move to increase roster flexibility and cap space with the expectation that he would clear waivers. However, questions about Gostisbehere’s future in Philadelphia loom as the Flyers enter a pivotal offseason in which they’ll be expected to make major upgrades to a defensive unit that did not perform up to acceptable standards in 2020-21. 

“Ghost” Storms onto the Scene in Philadelphia

Gostisbehere draws polarizing attention from Flyers fans and media largely because of his beginning stages with the organization. “Ghost” first sparked excitement by winning the Most Outstanding Player Award in the NCAA National Championship as a Flyers prospect in 2014 when the Frozen Four was played at the Wells Fargo Center. 

His outstanding rookie season breathed life into a Flyers team that desperately needed it. In 2015-16, he tallied 46 points in 64 games. He scored four overtime goals following a November call-up, and the energy from his game ignited the Flyers for a late-season push to the playoffs after a sluggish start to the season. Gostisbehere drew comparisons to Hall of Famer Phil Housley because of his shifty movements as a puck carrier and strong shot from the point. He recorded a 15-game point streak that was the longest by an NHL defenseman in the 20 prior years.

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He finished second in the vote for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year, an award won by former Chicago Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin largely based on statistical performance over the full regular season. Gostisbehere’s overall value to his team was the greatest of any rookie, and he even finished ahead of budding rookie stars Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

Gostisbehere’s Highs and Lows: Inconsistency, Injuries, Rumors

Gostisbehere’s fall from grace began with a disappointing sophomore season in 2016-17 when the league successfully made strategical adjustments to defend his style of play. He finished with 39 points for a Flyers team that missed the postseason. Former head coach Dave Hakstol’s lineup decisions were called into question regularly, and his decision to bench Ghost midseason was at the forefront of the grievances of fans and media.

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A rebound season in 2017-18 rejuvenated hope for Gostisbehere as a centerpiece of the Flyers’ future. A career-high 65 points seemed to ensure that he could complement young defenseman Ivan Provorov’s workhorse style on the first pair. However, the 2018-19 season continued the cycle of alternating seasons of success. He finished with 37 points in 78 games. He was a minus-20 over the course of Philadelphia’s disastrous 2018-19 season. 

Shayne Gostisbehere Philadelphia Flyers
Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A nagging knee injury and recurring defensive discrepancies have prevented Gostisbehere from gaining any consistent momentum over the course of the past two seasons. He has routinely been brought up in trade rumors as a logical choice for a player that might benefit from a change of scenery away from Philadelphia. General manager Chuck Fletcher joked following the trade deadline in 2020, “I’m amazed at how often I’m trading him” in reference to the extensive rumors surrounding Gostisbehere’s future (from ‘Shayne Gostisbehere happy to still be with Flyers and ‘good cheerleader right now,’’ Courier Post, 2/27/20).

What Does the Future Hold?

Gostisbehere had a strong but somewhat inconsistent season for the Flyers in 2020-21. On May 6, Vigneault acknowledged “good moments” and “other moments that have been a little more challenging” in reference to Gostisbehere’s consistency problems in 2020-21 as a part of the team’s overall consistency problems. Moving forward, his roster spot is far from certain because of the need for the Flyers to make major changes to their defensive corps.

Cam York of the U.S. National Development Program
Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cam York (Hickling Images)

The need for salary cap flexibility might ultimately be the deciding factor in the decision to end Gostisbehere’s eventful tenure in Philadelphia. Fletcher will be looking to acquire a top-pair defenseman to play with Provorov as the team’s primary need, and he will have to decide if a 28-year-old power-play specialist who won’t play top pair minutes is expendable in a greater effort to restructure the entire unit. Gostisbehere, who is under contract at $4.5 million AAV for the next two seasons, could be left unprotected in the Seattle expansion draft in efforts to clear salary space and allow for a major acquisition.

The assumed plan for the expansion draft entering the season was to protect three defensemen: Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Philippe Myers. However, Gostisbehere’s contributions outweighed Myers’ this season. He was especially effective after he cleared waivers, when he showed better physical play and defensive competency than at any other point in his career. Exposing Ghost in favor of Myers would be assuming the risk of losing a better player in hopes of increasing the likelihood of acquiring a highly coveted partner for Provorov on the top pair. Further complicating matters is the possibility of defensive prospect Cam York playing in the NHL next season on an entry-level contract, in which case Gostisbehere and Myers would both become candidates to be moved by any sensible means this offseason.

The collective uncertainty surrounding the status of the Flyers is exemplified by Gostisbehere’s situation. While his late-season improvement certainly increased his chances to remain in Philadelphia, losing the once highly touted young star might have to be an accepted risk in the Flyers’ efforts to revamp a defensive corps that significantly hindered their success in 2020-21.  

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