It’s been a bumpy two years or so for Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. Ever since his astonishing 65-point campaign in 2017-18, Ghost has bumped every branch on the way down, slowly falling from the dizzying heights he’d reached, bringing a hefty six-year, $27 million contract with him. Are the Flyers ready to give him one more shot at rejuvenation, or is the writing on the wall for the once-heralded defenseman?
The 2019-20 campaign was an infuriating one from Ghost’s perspective. Mired by a knee injury that plagued him throughout the season before, the numbers show just 12 points in 42 games The reality is that his minutes started slipping away, he needed surgery in January, and was a healthy scratch in November, a season that carried more promise for the team than any in recent memory.
Ghost returned in the playoffs and had a significant impact against the Canadiens, amassing 2 assists in 5 postseason appearances. But with the team so close yet so far from postseason glory, taking the right steps is key.
The catch-22 with Ghost is that he carries a $4.5M cap hit. This would be fine if he could get back to his earlier form, even the seasons surrounding his 65-point romp. Gostisbehere still posted 39 and 37 points respectively either side of the 2017-18 season, but that form is a stretch too far, the salary cap pressures may prompt a move.
The writing appeared to be on the wall when rumors of Shayne Gostisbehere hitting the trade block began to surface. It was then given a second coating with the signing of Eric Gustafsson, another offensively-minded defenseman who plays a similar game and like Gostisbehere, had reached some eyebrow-raising highs before a down year. The difference is that his cap hit is $1.5M cheaper.
Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher fielded a question about the idea of both players being inside the team’s starting lineup come opening night, giving an interesting response.
“Absolutely. They’re both real good players. I’m not sure stylistically they are as similar as you make it seem. Gustafsson’s just got tremendous deception and vision. I think he generates offense a little bit differently than Ghost. Ghost has probably got the best shot of anybody on our team. Phil Myers has the velocity maybe but right now I’d say Gostisbehere is an elite shooter. I think they’re a little bit different. They are both better offensively than defensively probably, but I think both of them actually defend pretty well. Why not? I think Provorov’s elite defensively. Sanheim and Myers in my opinion will become elite shutdown defensemen in this league. Justin Braun is an elite defender. Hägg is a good defender. So why not have a couple guys that can spring your offense? If we can defend less, that would be a great thing.”
Hearing such high praise for the shot Gostisbehere possesses is noteworthy here, but the reason his future has been questioned so prominently has nothing to do with his greatest strength, but more-so his biggest weakness.
Ghost isn’t the most efficient of defenders. A little lighter than most, he often struggles against bigger forwards on the defensive end, leading to many instances where he’s knocked off the puck or having to rush distribution that can lead to turnovers.
His 27 giveaways through 42 games ranked 12th on the team, but most others had played in 27 more games. If you were to take that average and expand it over a 69 game span, you’d get 46. That would rank him fifth in the team, despite playing roughly 2 minutes per night less than those above.
What doesn’t help is that less than 50% of Ghost’s shots taken last year found the target. His expected +/- for shots taken by the team when on the ice was -2.3, ranking 27th on the team. So if you partner a below-average defensive effort and lessen the impact he makes offensively, finding the value becomes a lot harder.
If that isn’t something that’s going to change anytime soon, then bringing in another defender who also isn’t exactly elite in the defensive zone, while losing someone like Matt Niskanen who was far better, it doesn’t paint the most promising picture.
You could make the argument that Ghost hasn’t benefited from a good ‘fit’ as a linemate since Andrew Macdonald and his ridiculous contract (every cloud has a silver lining), but bringing in Gustafsson doesn’t solve that at all.
Chuck Fletcher seems to like the idea of having both players around for the 2020-2021 campaign, but is it simply a case of overstocking the Cupboard with ingredients you might not need? Will Gostisbehere be able to carve out a regular role? If he can’t, will the team be obliged to keep riding him due to his cap hit, all but negating the value move in Gustafsson?
It might feel like it’s easy to retain Shayne Gostisbehere, but the waters are murkier than the naked eye can see.
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire