While a lot of the attention has been on the Philadelphia Flyers forwards having fantastic seasons so far, with Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Sean Couturier all having career years, there is a defenseman that hasn’t been receiving enough credit. Shayne Gostisbehere has bounced back in a big way after an up-and-down sophomore campaign.
Gostisbehere struggled on the surface in his sophomore year, with just 39 points in 76 games after an amazing rookie season with 46 points in 64 games. However, even coming off offseason surgery and a shortened rehab period, his underlying statistics were there and he picked up the pace in the latter stages of the season. He has continued that type of play in the first half of his third professional season and he’s one of the reasons for the Flyers’ successes in an up-and-down season.
About a year ago I wrote that the reports of Gostisbehere’s decline were being greatly exaggerated, and it turns out that I was wildly accurate in my claims. He wasn’t scoring at the pace that he was in his rookie season, but he was still driving play and getting shots off. The problem was that the shots just simply weren’t going in. Whether it was luck, an effect of the injury, or a combination of both, Gostisbehere struggled to score despite the underyling statistics. While it was a well received article, there were some blowhard pundits that doubted the defenseman.
This year the points are there for Gostisbehere, and he has stepped up his defensive game as well. He has gone from an offensive specialist to more of a two-way defenseman with plenty of room to grow. He has improved immensely without the puck, and he hasn’t sacrificed any of his offensive flare to do so. It is evident in both the numbers, and by watching him play.
Over the last home stand before the bye week Gostisbehere seemed to have his best stretch of games. He was promoted to the top pairing with Ivan Provorov in the middle of December just prior to the holiday break and he has thrived there ever since. In the last four games before the break he has picked up his game even more.
In the first game of the home stand, despite losing 5-1 to the Penguins in a disappointing game, Gostisbehere’s defensive play was one of the main storylines. In the first period alone he broke up a potential three-on-one chance down low, two-on-one rush, and also stood up Sidney Crosby at the blue line.
Here’s a look at him defending the two-on-one rush. He played it perfectly as he took away the passing lane then went at the forward carrying the puck to knock it away.
It was a great sequence of plays by Gostisbehere, and it was a great showcase of his defensive game on a national stage.
Standing up Crosby at the line is no easy feat either, but he made it look like he was a shutdown defenseman taking on an average center as Gostisbehere took him off the puck and allowed Couturier to pick it up.
Gostisbehere has been playing better defensively all season long. First he was with Robert Hägg, and the two complemented each other very nicely, and now he’s clicking with Provorov on the top pair against tough competition. He’s been making plays like the ones above on a nightly basis.
Other things that we take for granted from Gostisbehere include his ability to keep the puck in the zone at the blue line. He is one of the best in the league at preserving his team’s offensive zone time. A lot of the time it comes on the power play, which allows the top unit to get a few more scoring chances, but no matter when it occurs it keeps the pressure on the opposition and sometimes it even results in goals.
That’s what happened on Thursday night against the Islanders. Gostisbehere had a few great plays at the blue line that kept the offensive zone time going, and twice they resulted in goals.
Early in the game he spun at the blue line to deke out a forward on a delayed penalty call, and it allowed the Flyers to get the puck around and on net for a chance.
That was just the appetizer to the main courses, as Gostisbehere’s keep at the line directly led to a power-play goal. He didn’t get an assist on the play, though he deserved a tertiary assist for his effort.
He didn’t get an assist on that goal, but he did on a very similar play later in the game. In fact, this play was better at the line. He just barely kept the puck in the zone and got it across to Provorov, whose shot was tipped home for a goal.
A handful of fantastic plays at the blue line that other defensemen wouldn’t make resulted in two goals, which ended up being the difference in the 6-4 win.
Gostisbehere played a solid game on Saturday as well, with another good two-way display. His point shot was tipped home on the power play to give him an assist in the game, which he has several of over the past few weeks.
His showcase continued on Sunday with a tremendous pair of plays in the neutral zone that led to a goal off the rush. Gostisbehere started and ended the rush with a great play.
After breaking up a pass earlier in the shift, Gostisbehere did it again and then joined the rush. This time they were able to corral the puck and Gostisbehere ended up firing it into the back of the net.
It’s a subtle play in the neutral zone, but it’s one that Gostisbehere has become accustomed to making. A play like that is why a defenseman stepping up in the neutral zone and at the blue line is so much better than backing up and allowing the forwards time and space to enter the zone. Not only does that play negate a rush, but it creates one going the other way.
Gostisbehere is passing the eye-test this season, and the results are showing up across the board. He leads the Flyers defensemen with 32 points (9 goals, 23 assists) in 39 games played. In the NHL he is only behind John Klingberg and John Carlson in points, and he ranks second in the league with 0.82 points per game on the season.
Gostisbehere isn’t necessarily doing a whole lot more than he did last season, offensively but he is healthier and getting a bit more puck luck, among other things. At 5v5 play he is shooting at his lowest career rate (4.86 shots per 60 minutes, compared to 5.46 in ’15-16 and 6.30 in ’16-17), and the same goes for shot attempts per 60 minutes (11.61 in ’15-16, 13.85 in ’16-17, 10.83 this season).
His shooting percentage at even strength has settled right in the middle of his previous two seasons. He shot 9.46% at 5v5 in his rookie year, just 2.56% last season, and is at a solid clip of 5.36% this year. He is getting a little more production on the power play, however, with a career-high 12.5% shooting percentage compared to 11.11% in his rookie year and a palty 3.39% last season.
Gostisbehere’s even strength possession numbers are all around the same as well, as he’s been within the 54 to 60 shot attempts per 60 minutes and 54 to 57 shot attempts against per 60 minutes in each of his three seasons. That brings him to a corsi for percentage just over 50% in all three seasons, which goes along with his expected goals for percentage of around 50% as well.
Gostisbehere is healthy, had a full offseason to get back on his regimen, and came into this season ready to silence his critics. He has done just that in a way that not many had predicted. He is thriving both offensively and defensively as well, allowing Dave Hakstol to use him on the top pair with Ivan Provorov.
Over the offseason Gostisbehere signed a contract extension that hasn’t gotten too much attention. He signed a six-year, $27 million ($4.5 million a year) contract in June of 2017. The deal looked good at the time, and it looks even better now. If he wasn’t playing this well people would probably be questioning if he can’t handle the pressure of a large contract, like some pundits like to pin on underperforming players despite the money having very little to do with it, so he deserves some credit for living up to, and even surpassing, expectations. Other defensemen that signed similar contracts to Gostisbehere’s include Damon Severson, Brian Dumoulin, Brett Pesce, Jonas Brodin, Danny Dekeyser, Morgan Rielly, Connor Murphy, and several others. Gostisbehere is better than almost all of the comparables and he is only hitting his prime.
Gostisbehere is the only defenseman signed past 2020, and is just one of four players on the roster signed that far in the future. He, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Sean Couturier are the core four that are signed past 2020. Obviously a lot of the younger players will still be with the team then, on bridge or their first big contracts, but these four are the veterans that the Flyers are building around. The forwards are having career years, and Gostisbehere is playing up to that level as well.
Gostisbehere may have suffered from a sophomore slump last season, if you want to call it that, but the extenuating circumstances are long gone and he is back on his game this season. He has continued his great offensive play this season while also improving the defensive elements of his game. He has gone from an ideal bottom-four defenseman, to a guy you can rely on in the top-four and at times on the top pair.
The young defenseman is being relied on as a veteran now and he has answered the call. He has improved his play away from the puck as he’s breaking up rushes, in the right position defensively, and pushing play in the right direction, while not sacrificing any of his offensive tools. He is still willing to join the rush, possibly now more than ever, get shots on net, take chances, and has rounded out his game to become a more complete, two-way defenseman.
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