There are a few story lines many fans will be watching for when the Flyers and Red Wings reconvene tonight at 6 p.m. in Detroit:
- Can this white hot Flyers team (12-2-1 in their last 15 games) continue an unexpected, unlikely, and unprecedented run toward a playoff berth?
- Will Carter Hart bounce back from a mediocre performance against the first team to play against him for a third time and playing in back-to-back games for the first time, no less? (I am going out on a limb and assuming coach Scott Gordon won’t be putting an important game in the playoff race on the shoulders of Mike McKenna, who will likely be waived Monday. McKenna will still back up Hart as newly acquired goalie Cam Talbot isn’t available today).
- Will there be retribution on Detroit’s Anthony Mantha for his cross-check to Claude Giroux’s head while Giroux was on his knees against the boards in the third period of yesterday’s game? (There was no penalty called, although there should have been).
These are all interesting plots to follow as tonight’s game progresses. But it’s not the one I’m going to be watching the most closely.
Yes, they all have varying degrees of interest for me, and yes, they are all good water cooler topics for Monday – for those of you who don’t get the President’s Day holiday.
But there is one more that I want to follow even closer. And actually, it’s a plot line that, until post game yesterday, has simply gone unnoticed by many observers of the team.
It involves Shayne Gostisbehere.
It’s a story that has been brewing for a while now. One that goes back to before Dave Hakstol was fired. To before Ron Hextall was fired. To before there was any talk of considering moving on from the uber-talented but sometimes disconnected defenseman.
Let’s put together a quick timeline after the jump:
1. Gostisbehere’s relationship with the former coaches
This story has to start here. Ghost had two really good offensive seasons in his first three with the Flyers. His rookie campaign was one that energized an entire city. He burst onto the scene with a style of play from a defenseman that has never before been seen in Philadelphia. He was always on the go. Great speed, a wicked slap shot, a willingness to gamble to generate offense, a flair for the dramatic – it was a combination of skills and chutzpah that no other Flyers defenseman has ever had.
No, we weren’t elevating him to the level of a Mark Howe or even an Eric Desjardins, but at the same time, what Ghost was doing was bewitching. Sure, there were some rookie mistakes. Yes, he needed to improve the defensive side of his game, but those flaws would eventually be ironed out because there was no rivaling the impact he had offensively.
Not to mention, he had a bit of a fiery attitude. It was infectious. His energy and drive wore off on not just his teammates, but the fans too. He was the epitome of instant success story before Gritty broke the instant success story mold.
Then came his sophomore campaign and things weren’t quite as rosy. Sophomore slumps suck, but most athletes go through them. Gostisbehere’s was compounded with injuries, including a core muscle injury that required offseason surgery after his inconsistent sequel to his hit movie the season before.
And although a lot of his setbacks were injury-related, Gostitsbehere also didn’t take kindly to being a healthy scratch at one point as Hakstol tried to send a message to his young defenseman.
The message initially worked, as Gostisbehere came off that scratch and played well for a stint, but that’s when the injuries started to nag. Gostisbehere, being the gamer that he is, didn’t want to let the injuries get in the way of him playing, so he gutted his way through them, all the while being coached up by Hakstol and former assistant coach Gord Murphy, who was in charge of the defense before he too was fired last November.
Ghost limped through the rest of the season and after surgery insisted he was going to be back better than ever.
And he was. He came into training camp last season feeling fit and ready to have a resurgence. He was the first interview I conducted last year after starting writing for Crossing Broad and he told me during the 2017-18 training camp that the season was going to be different.
“I’m just going to go out there and play my game,” he told me. “I’m a guy who needs to create and be aggressive and try and be productive for my team. I won’t worry about all the other things that make you think to much out there. I’m just going to do what I do best and take it from there.”
And he did what he did best – finishing with 65 points, fourth-most among defensemen in the NHL, and second-best in the Eastern Conference.
And while it was a wildly successful season for Gostisbehere on the score sheet, there was a little more brewing beneath the surface.
The coaches were frustrated with Gostisbehere’s unwillingness to conform to what they wanted for more than just snippets of time. In turn, Gostisbehere was growing more and more frustrated with the coaches for really harping on him. After all, here was a guy who was producing at an elite level for the team and playing better than every other defenseman on the team not named Ivan Provorov and yet he was taking more internal criticism than most.
It’s understandable that Ghost would feel that way.
But, communication wasn’t always the greatest strong suit for the former coaching staff. And by communication, I mean the way in which a message was delivered. Sure, the coaches could bark out orders, but often, context was lacking.
Murphy was especially difficult to deal with for the Flyers defensemen. And once the 2018-19 season started off so poorly and Murphy was fired for along with Hextall for being a mole for the former G.M., there was a sigh of relief among the defensive corps, especially those on the younger side of things.
2. A second chance with new coaches and a new G.M.
In came Rick Wilson as an assistant coach to replace Murphy, a defensive whisperer of sorts, Wilson had been retired and came out of retirement to fix the Flyers defensive woes. The Flyers really wanted to get their top, young defensemen right. Provorov had been terrible for the first two months of the season. Travis Sanheim couldn’t take that next step and his inconsistencies were starting to show. And Gostisbehere needed to get back to being the force he was the season prior.
Since Wilson’s arrival and subsequently Gordon replacing Hakstol, Provorov and Sanheim have had that renaissance. Take yesterday’s game against Detroit out of the equation (Provorov had two bad turnovers that directly led to two Detroit goals and Sanheim found himself out of position on another of Detroit’s tallies) and those two former first round picks have been excellent for the better part of two months.
Since being paired together, they are logging huge minutes, playing against the opposition’s top players and doing a fine job of limiting chances.
However Gostisbehere was still in a funk. He wasn’t generating enough shots on goal. He wasn’t scoring. He wasn’t setting up enough teammates. And without that aspect of his game – where he can be incredibly productive – he was becoming less valuable.
That’s because his defensive game, now in his fourth season in the league, is still lacking as it was when he burst on the scene in 2015-16.
And it’s not just how he plays defensive hockey. The Flyers are actually OK with him just being an average player without the puck if he’s producing at his elite level with it.
However, it’s been his decision-making with the puck or around the puck that has left the Flyers scratching their heads.
Knowing Ghost is one of those players who doesn’t like to be barked at but rather talked to about perceived problems, Gordon has taken a different approach with him.
It’s actually something Gordon has learned about speaking to today’s generation in general. He talks about this at great length on the next edition of our Snow the Goalie podcast, which you can find at the bottom of this post.
In brief, Gordon has learned that today’s generation of player doesn’t just want to know what to do and how to do it, but also wants to know why he’s being asked to do something a certain way.
Gordon finds that without the why, getting the message across or having a strategy applied is a lot harder.
So, Gordon has taken to sitting down with players for lengthy conversations about their game and explaining to them what the expectation is, how it’s going to be reached and why it is what it is.
Gordon had the conversation recently with Gostisbehere, but before we get to that, for the sake of chronology, let’s go here next:
The first time I heard about Gostisbehere and not being on the same page as his coaches was on Black Friday. This was a few days before Hextall and Murphy were fired.
I was told by multiple team sources that there was internal concern about where Gostisbehere’s game was at this point in his career and that Gostisbehere (and others) were tuning out the coaches who were trying to get him to improve.
It was in that next week or so where I was reporting a lot of the inside stuff about the Flyers regime as it was being guided by Hextall and was being fed more information about the next GM and the players.
Once Chuck Fletcher took over as GM, I was told there was going to be an evaluation period and everyone was going to be under the microscope. Players. Coaches. Everyone.
During that evaluation period, I was told further that Gostisbehere wasn’t checking off all the boxes that Fletcher needed to see.
His play was too inconsistent. Some of the unexpected offensive struggles were still there and the play in his own end was getting more and more shoddy.
That’s when I was told by someone in the organization, “Don’t be surprised if he’s not part of Chuck’s long-term plan here.”
What do you do with that information? It isn’t specific enough to say he’s definitely being shopped for the trade deadline, but it’s also worth speculating that since the Flyers have depth at defense and goaltending that as they try to move forward to find players to improve their scoring, they could look to trade from those areas of surplus.
So, it became worth speculating on social media and on the Press Row Show and Snow the Goalie. Is Gostisbehere a candidate to be moved? Yeah. Maybe so. It might not be at the deadline. It might be in the offseason. But how does a reliable source of information – one of the same people who told me about Hextall and Hakstol’s firing – tell me that Ghost may not be part of the long-term plan here and then you see he’s signed for four more years at a very palatable $4.5 million cap hit and take that information and NOT assume he’s a trade candidate?
It’s certainly fair speculation.
Follow that up with a Fletcher press availability last week in which he found a way to praise the play of Provorov, Sanheim, Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg and conveniently forgot the one other defenseman on the team who is playing.
So, I put it out there publicly.
Since then, there has been a lot of talk about Ghost’s future. Many published stories writings or conversations have indicated that it would be silly to move on from him or that it wasn’t even worth discussing. Then Saturday happened.
4. Is there a disconnect?
Here’s a partial transcript of what Ghost had to say following the Flyers crazy 6-5 win against Detroit Saturday, a game in which he scored a goal, snapping an 18-game drought, and then was part of his team’s third period collapse in which they blew a four-goal lead only to survive and win in overtime on a goal by Travis Konecny.
Q: Snapping the goal drought, how much more confidence did you have with the puck on your stick?
“It was good. It was huge. Especially getting it early. I felt good out there… I think the best defense is a good offense. For us to be able to control the puck all the time, it really helps.”
Q: Has confidence been affecting you?
“Not really. I think it’s opportunity. I think being put in the right situations really helps for me.Obviously I can pick up my game a bunch, take care of pucks and be the player I’m supposed to be. I felt like I did that.”
Q: You were the No. 1 topic on Flyers twitter this week. There were think pieces that were pro/con. It’s only human to know when things are being said or things are being written. Do you use that as some kind of extrinsic motivation to continue to try to fuel the fire?
“I really don’t care what anyone says. I know what kind of player I am. I’m going to go out there and play my game. It’s not an easy game to play – the way I play. I’m an offensive guy and I need to be put in the right offensive situations. I got that tonight and I think it really showed.“
The emphasis in his answers is mine and is being used to identify what could be a philosophical difference between Gostisbehere and his coaches.
Ghost thinks he needs to be put in better offensive situations to flourish. This from a guy who plays defense. And also he’s hinting that prior to Saturday he wasn’t being put in those situations.
He played a season low 11:24 against Minnesota Tuesday. Some of that was because the Flyers were shorthanded five times and Ghost doesn’t kill penalties, but even with that, he should be more than 11:24. His season low before that was 13:47 in Montreal and that was a game he got hurt and missed time. Aside from that, he’s had five games this season with between 15 and 18 minutes and 48 games with 18 minutes or more.
So don’t be fooled by that penalty kill excuse – the coaches were sending a message to Gostisbehere.
That’s further evidenced by Gordon saying he had talked to Ghost Friday about what he needs to do better. He explained on our podcast about what he does with players in one-on-one sessions to talk about their game. He dove into specifics about his conversation with Ghost after Saturday’s game, and it sure doesn’t sound like Gordon and Gostisbehere are of the same mindset:
Q. What have you been saying or doing with Shayne to get him playing more like he did today or to get his confidence back up?
“I think he’s been good once the puck has left our zone. He got into the attack and made plays. But what we talked about [Friday] is getting better on the breakout – making better plays, better reads and not passing off his troubles to someone else when he can possibly do more. It’s one of those things where it just doesn’t happen for you offensively from the offensive blue line in. It doesn’t just start from the neutral zone on an attack. It starts from our goal line and from our net. He’s got to do more to help himself. He actually did that today. There were a few breakouts where I was pleased to see how he went about it and where it took us.”
Q. He said he considers himself an offensive player and needs to be put in advantageous offensive situations. Is that something going forward that schematically or systematically you are going to look to do to maximize his talent in that end, or was it just the way the game broke today?
“To get into more offensive situations you have to play less defense. A lot of that defense he was having to play – not all of it, but some of it – had to do with his decisions and how he was going back for pucks and breaking out. So, when you make that less complicated and you do more to help yourself, you’re going to give yourself more opportunities to go on the attack. I thought he did that today.”
Q. What did he do to make it better for himself and not pass of his problems to others?
“If you go back to the puck and you don’t want it or you don’t want to be the guy making the play, you’re not going to do the work to hustle back and get it. You’re not going to do the work to shield the puck. Do things that are deceptive – make the forechecker think you are doing one thing when you do another – if you are not going to do that work that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, you’re going to make it easy for the forecheckers. So, you have a team that’s coming with two guys on the forecheck and you’ve got time to go back and get the puck and you just throw the puck to your partner that has somebody breathing right sown his back and he can’t make a play but you had an opportunity to make a play – it’s those situations that he can be better at.”
Again, the emphasis is mine. And that last answer is the winner – which is why the whole thing is emphasized. Gordon is basically saying Ghost doesn’t try hard enough to make plays in his own end and often puts his defensive partner in a bad position by passing him the puck when he shouldn’t.
Really, all three of Gordon’s answers are pretty damning to Gostisbehere. You wanted to know why the Flyers are frustrated with him? Here’s a good chunk of it publicly, from the coach and not being whispered through me.
So, that’s why I’m going to be watching Ghost specifically in today’s game more than anything else. I want to see if this public message hits home. I want to see if Ghost gets it, or if he still falls into the same old habits that have frustrated the organization.
And if he does the latter, then that’s a real world indication of why the Flyers would consider moving on from him, as I was told a while ago, and no complex statistical analysis can say otherwise.
For more Flyers coverage, be sure to check out The Press Row Show pregame and intermission shows before and during home games via Facebook Live on the Crossing Broad Facebook page and Periscope via Anthony and Russ’ Twitter accounts. Also, listen to our Flyers podcast Snow the Goalie ([iTunes] [Google Play] [Stitcher] [RSS]), leave a 5 star review, and follow us on Twitter:@AntSanPhilly @JoyOnBroad