Shayne Gostisbehere may not technically finish as the NHL's best rookie of 2015-16. But he probably will go down as the most valuable.
Gostisbehere (all together now, it's pronounced "gaws-TIHS-bair," but he's becoming better known as "Ghost" or "Ghost Bear") has given the Philadelphia Flyers a weapon they've lacked for pretty much the last 30 years or so: namely, a game-breaking offensive presence from the blue line. And "game-breaking" is the apt adjective to describe Gostisbehere's contributions to the Flyers.
Of the first 15 goals he scored for Philadelphia, every one of them either tied the game or put the Flyers ahead.
"That's got to be some kind of record," said Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, sitting across the visitors' locker room from Gostisbehere last week at the Pepsi Center, where the Flyers beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. "He's added a dimension to our team that we didn't have before. He's been pretty unbelievable, really."
The hyperbole of teammates praising one another aside, Gostisbehere's story is rather remarkable. A Flyers third-round draft choice in 2012, the Pembroke Pines, Florida, native didn't even make the Flyers out of training camp this season. He was sent to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League. That, coupled with a 2014-15 season largely lost to a torn ACL, seemed to represent another career setback.
But it only added to his personal Rocky story, which Philadelphians can truly appreciate. After recording 10 points in 14 games with the Phantoms, Gostisbehere was called up to the Flyers on Nov. 14, when the team's record was 5-8-3. After the win over the Avalanche, Philadelphia's record with Gostisbehere was 31-16-10 (he missed two of those victories with a lower-body injury).
That win over Colorado probably would not have happened pre-Ghost Bear. For too long, Philadelphia's blue line was one-dimensional, full of rim-it-out D-men who disappeared once the puck entered the offensive zone.
In Denver, the Flyers were being shut out more than 12 minutes into the second period when Gostisbehere took Andrew MacDonald's crossing pass from the point and blasted a one-timer that was tipped in by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, tying the game 1-1. Flyers D-men of yore probably would have settled MacDonald's crossing pass first and then shot the puck. It was that extra second of gained aggressiveness that made the difference in Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov not having enough time to set himself toward the play.
Gostisbehere's puck-carrying ability has given Philadelphia's top forwards, such as Simmonds and Claude Giroux, a little more freedom to cheat out of the defensive zone so they can do what they do best at the other end.
"He demands defensive attention when he has the puck, so that creates a little more room for everyone else," said Simmonds, who led the Flyers with 25 goals through 74 games. "That's what a puck-moving D-man can give a team offensively. It just makes it harder for the other D to focus in on the forwards."
The son of a professional jai alai player named Regis, Gostisbehere played youth hockey in the Sunshine State for a team former NHL forward Ray Sheppard coached. He was good enough to earn a hockey scholarship to Union College, where he excelled under head coach Rick Bennett.
With Gostisbehere, the Dutchmen advanced to the Frozen Four in 2012 and 2014, and they won the national championship with a 7-4 victory over Minnesota in 2014. Gostisbehere had three points and was plus-seven. The game was played at the Wells Fargo Center, which the Flyers call home.
"That was definitely a dream come true," Gostisbehere said. "To do it on the same ice as where the team that drafted you plays, it was special."
But things went bad in his second game with the Phantoms seven months later. On Nov. 7, 2014, against the Manchester Monarchs, the 5'11", 180-pound Gostisbehere was hit into the boards by 6'1", 205-pound defenseman Kevin Raine. Gostisbehere tore the ACL in his left knee.
For a player whose top attributes were centered on speed and finesse—and who was never going to be confused with Scott Stevens for defensive intimidation—the injury at first seemed devastating. But, as detailed by Randy Miller of NJ.com, Gostisbehere spent four hours a day, six days a week, rehabbing his knee. He entered the following training camp healthy.
But when it ended, Flyers management deemed him unready to be a full-time NHL player. The worry was over his reliability in the defensive end. First-year Philadelphia head coach Dave Hakstol, known for being sparse with praise, has more trust in Gostisbehere now.
"He's a young guy who's come in and had a real positive impact for us," Hakstol said. "With that, he's gotten a lot of spotlight and attention to him, but he's done a good job of continuing to work on his game. So, do I have trust in him? Absolutely. Are there areas of his game where he can continue to work and improve? Yeah, there are, but at this time of the year it's just about going out and doing the job and trying to impact the game, and he does that."
Even at just 22 years old, and with less than a season's worth of NHL games under his belt, Gostisbehere already ranks among the league's best blue-liners in goals, points per game and plus-minus.
|Defensemen Ranked by Points Per Game (min. 5 games)|
|PPG||Goals||Points||+ / -|
|NHL.com<br>Through March 27|
Gostisbehere, a left-handed shot, has been paired mostly with MacDonald, another lefty. Two lefties together can be problematic in the offensive end, but not in this case so far. Gostisbehere plays the right side, so he can lean into booming one-timers fed by the natural hand of MacDonald.
Gostisbehere also seems to be taking his growing popularity with fans and media in stride. It's nice, he acknowledged, but like a lot of players who were deemed too small to make it in the big time, he isn't going to take anything for granted. In some ways, he's become the defensive equivalent of Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau—the undersized Boston College product who fooled the experts. He figures to get good consideration for the Calder Memorial Trophy, for which Gaudreau was a finalist last season.
"I don't worry about the other stuff, the accolades," Gostisbehere said. "It's all about opportunity, and last year was a tough year for me. But, thankfully, the coach gave me an opportunity to show my stuff, so it's been fun. I'm just trying to play to my skill set. If it's just moving pucks or getting shots through, whatever I can do to help the team."
Fifteen goals that either tied or put his team ahead officially qualifies as helping the team. And since the Flyers—who have a game in hand—are tied with the Detroit Red Wings for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card berth, they'll need the contributions of their star rookie now more than ever.
"We probably wouldn't be where we are—in the hunt for a playoff spot—without him," Simmonds said.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him @Adater.