Less than one week ago, Shayne Gostisbehere was honored by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association as its pro athlete of the year. Perhaps that indicates how slim the pickings were in that category, although that comment might be a bit unfair to Gostisbehere.
Gostisbehere had a terrific season, which also happened to be his rookie season. After being called up from the Phantoms due to injuries, Gostisbehere scored 17 goals and registered 29 assists in 64 games. He led Flyers defensemen in both categories, and ranked fifth overall on the team in points. He was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.
Gostisbehere was on top of the world when he was a Calder Trophy finalist. By contrast, he was down in the dumps last Friday while receiving the Pro Athlete of the Year Award.
The award was presented after the first game of a three-game benching. (Reports are that Gostisbehere will return to the lineup Thursday against the Islanders.) Despite an outcry from some quarters, the benching was warranted.
Let’s compare Gostisbehere’s statistics to last season. In 48 games this season, he has four goals and 17 assists. The assists aren’t too far off his pace of last season, but his goal-scoring is significantly down. He doesn’t even lead Flyers defensemen in goals. His last goal came on Nov. 25 against the Rangers.
The most disturbing number, though is Gostisbehere’s plus/minus rating. The plus/minus rating can be misleading. Unfortunately, in Gostisbehere’s case, his minus-19 rating – the worst on the team – is not misleading.
At his size, Gostisbehere is going to have some problems along the boards and around the net. He can minimize those problems, but he’s not going to be a shutdown defender, particularly low in his own zone.
Gostisbehere’s equalizer is supposed to be his skating and his ability to move the puck. Instead of moving the puck smoothly out of his own end, however, Gostisbehere has been turning the puck over with alarming frequency. That’s one reason he is minus-11 during January.
It has been argued that Gostisbehere should not have been benched because the Flyers should concentrate more on their future than making the playoffs. Gostisbehere is part of the Flyers’ future. Nick Schultz is not.
But when you’re minus-11 in one month and your team has a surplus of defensemen, you deserve to be benched.
Even though he’s struggling this season, Gostisbehere has been missed during his three-game absence. The power play has struggled in his absence. Gostisbehere leads Flyers defensemen with 12 power play assists. Teams have tried to take away Gostisbehere’s space and the back-and-forth magic he had with Claude Giroux that made last year’s power play so effective. But Gostisbehere has still been the Flyers’ best defenseman on the power play.
On the other hand, the Flyers have been better defensively without Gostisbehere in the lineup. They’ve only allowed three regulation goals during his three-game absence, and their 3-1 victory over the Canadiens in the first game of Gostisbehere’s benching may have been their best defensive effort of the season. The steady and reliable Schultz seems to fit the defensive style head coach Dave Hakstol has installed recently better than Gostisbehere.
The downside to having Gostisbehere out of the lineup is the Flyers have been shut out during their past two games. His skating ability and puck movement are missed.
The Flyers need Gostisbehere in the lineup, but that should not be misconstrued as an admission that the benching was a mistake.
KONECNY INJURED: Hopefully, Shayne Gostisbehere has a better return to the lineup than Travis Konecny. The rookie forward sat out two games with Gostisbehere, and then returned to the lineup Monday during a 2-0 loss to the Blues. Konecny sustained a “lower body” injury during the second period. He is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
Konecny is inconsistent and has admitted that, at times, he tries to do too much instead of making the simply play. But the Flyers will miss his creativity and energy.
MISPLACED ANGER: During a town meeting for season ticket holders earlier this week, the complaints about Shayne Gostisbehere being benched were reportedly accompanied by complaints about Andrew MacDonald being in the lineup. Perhaps this was a reaction to MacDonald being on the ice for both goals during Monday’s 2-0 loss to the Blues.
MacDonald has had a pretty good year. Prior to Monday, he had seven straight games in which he was not a “minus” player. Furthermore, MacDonald has been a solid partner for rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov. The verbal beating MacDonald received at the town meeting was misplaced anger and frustration.
CAPTAIN ACCOUNTABLE: There is an old saying that the captain goes down with his ship. In the case of the Flyers, the ship may be going down with the captain.
Travis Konecny was benched after his bad giveaway in his own zone led to a Hurricanes goal during the Flyers’ 5-1 loss in the first game after the All-Star break, but Giroux also made a terrible giveaway that led to a Hurricanes goal. Giroux later took a frustration penalty that led to a power play goal for the Hurricanes.
Giroux is a minus-1 in three of the Flyers’ four games since the All-Star break. This is significant for two reasons. First, after allowing five goals against the Hurricanes, the Flyers have only allowed four goals in their past three games. Being minus-2 when opponents have only scored four goals is bad.
The second reason this is bad news is that this four-game stretch isn’t an aberration. As noted in my Flyers Notebook on January 18, Giroux was minus-14 as the Flyers followed their 10-game winning streak with a14-game stretch in which they compiled a 3-8-3 record. The bottom line: Giroux needs to be better.
CHANGE IN GOAL: After the 5-1 loss to the Hurricanes, Michal Neuvirth played three straight games. He was very good while only allowing one goal (on 16 shots) during a win over the Canadiens. Neuvirth was even better while shutting out the Kings during regulation in what turned out to be a 1-0 overtime defeat. He made 27 saves, some of them spectacular, against the Kings. Neuvirth was more pedestrian Monday against the Blues, allowing two goals on 16 shots.
With the contracts of both Neuvirth and Steve Mason expiring after this season, the Flyers have a decision to make. The biggest drawback for Neuvirth is his durability. A team can’t commit significant money to a starting goalie who is frequently injured.
KINGS RULE OVERTIME: How scary is the Kings’ trio that produced the winning goal during Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Flyers? Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty form an awesome trio for the 3-on-3 overtime.
Carter, with 27 goals, including the overtime winner against the Flyers, has a higher percentage of his team’s goals than any player in the NHL. Tanner Pearson, with 15 goals, is the only other King in double figures. Carter has scored all four of the Kings’ overtime goals.
I’ve written this on many other occasions: although I won’t complain about a trade that brought the Flyers Jakub Voracek and draft picks that turned out to be Sean Couturier and Nick Cousins, the Flyers have never found a sniper to replace Carter. I was one of the few to say that the Flyers would miss Carter more than Mike Richards on the day both players was traded, and, year after year, Carter keeps proving my point.
PLAYOFF CHASE: The Flyers enter Thursday’s game against the Islanders clinging to the second wild card berth. There are eight teams behind the Flyers, and they’re all within five points of the orange-and-black. The Islanders trail the Flyers by three points but have played three fewer games, so Thursday’s game is extremely important in the playoff race.
BRUINS FIRE JULIEN: The Bruins, who have fallen behind the Senators and Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division and are one point behind the Flyers in the wild card chase, fired head coach Claude Julien, who was in his 10th season as the team’s head coach. Julien, who was the longest tenured head coach in the NHL, compiled a 419-246-94 record with the Bruins, winning a Stanley Cup in 2011 and returning to the Cup finals in 2013.
LOOKAHEAD: The Flyers, who have been shut out in consecutive home games for the first time since 1999, try to finish their five-game homestand on a more positive note against the Islanders on Thursday (7 p.m.) and the Sharks on Saturday (1 p.m.). The Flyers begin a Western Canada trip with back-to-back games against the Flames and Oilers next Wednesday and Thursday.