Fans attending the Flyers’ season finale Monday against New Jersey at the Wells Fargo Center may be seeing the last game played by Shayne Gostisbehere for the Orange and Black.
And if it is his last game as a Flyer, that would be a shame because the player they call “Ghost” is almost back to the level that took the league by storm as a rookie in 2014-15. That was the season the swift-skating Gostisbehere displayed a wicked shot that made the power play potent, and he finished second in the rookie-of-the-year race, behind Artemi Panarin and ahead of players like Connor McDavid (because of an injury), Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, and Colton Parayko.
The Flyers will have some interesting decisions to make in the offseason, and Gostisbehere, who has had an up-and-down career, is in the middle of lots of them.
They trade the 28-year-old defenseman after he revived his offensive game this season, and open a spot for Cam York, 20, a promising defenseman who can also quarterback a power play.
On the surface, some might think Gostisbehere, who is serving a two-game suspension this weekend, has little value because teams could have claimed him off waivers in late March but bypassed.
Since then, however, Gostisbehere has scored four goals in 15 games and shown that his surgically repaired knee is all the way back. He entered the weekend with nine goals (five on the power play), 20 points, and a minus-5 rating in 40 games.
Yes, he has some defensive flaws, but his offense and his ability to direct a power play could make him attractive to a team that, unlike when Gostisbehere was placed on waivers, might have cap space because of expiring contracts this summer.
Protect Gostisbehere and expose Phil Myers in the July 21 expansion draft with Seattle.
The Flyers are expected to use the option where they can protect three defensemen in the expansion draft. Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim are locks. The third defenseman will be either Myers or Gostisbehere.
Mark Howe, the best defenseman to ever play for the Flyers, is the Detroit Red Wings’ longtime director of pro scouting. He believes the Flyers will protect Myers if it comes down to a choice between him and Gostisbehere.
At the same time, “I think Ghost was their only defenseman who had a better year this year than he had last year,” Howe said Friday. “I think he gained a little confidence and it showed.”
Most of the Flyers’ defensemen took a step backward as the units were affected by Matt Niskanen’s retirement and the frequent shuffling of pairings this year.
Howe said the Flyers need their defensemen to continue to “do the strengthening and conditioning and filling out their bodies in the summer. And also to try to study the game a little bit. Those are the guys that get better. You can see it. You want to see guys continue to improve well into their 20s.”
Deciding which defensemen to protect looked like a no-brainer before the season. Myers was coming off a strong season, had signed a contract extension, and was expected to be on the top pairing with Provorov. He was big, right-handed, and blossoming, clearly one of the Flyers’ top three defensemen.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Myers regressed this year, was a healthy scratch several times, and, when he did play, was used on the third pairing late in the season. He began the weekend with one goal, 10 points, and a minus-13 rating in 41 games.
“I thought Myers sat back a lot and didn’t seem involved in the offensive part of it, and that’s his game, getting up in the offense,” Howe said. “I don’t know if it’s his confidence or the system he was in, but I know he’s a better player than that.”
Gostisbehere’s bounce-back season after two sub-par years – coach Alain Vigneault gave him only lukewarm praise the other day – and the fact he can play either side, has complicated things. There is no longer a clear-cut answer as to whom the Flyers should protect.
Protect Myers, 24, and expose Gostisbehere to the expansion draft.
Because he is nearly four years younger than Gostisbehere and probably has more upside, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Flyers opted to protect Myers.
Then again, Gostisbehere was much better on the power play than Myers was on the penalty kill. And Gostisbehere was clearly the more productive player this season.
Their Corsi percentage at even strength is similar. Myers entered the weekend at 53.8%, and Gostisbehere was at 51.9%, meaning the team controlled the puck slightly more than its opponents with those players on the ice.
As for salaries, Gostisbehere has two years left at an annual cap hit of $4.5 million, while Myers has two years remaining with an annual $2.55 million cap hit.
Howe sees Myers as more of a No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman.
“I think he took most of the heat, but I thought Sanheim struggled just as much -- or even more -- in the first half of the year,” Howe said.
If the Flyers want to keep both Myers and Gostisbehere, they could probably send Seattle a draft pick to make sure they don’t select one of them.
Seattle may find that intriguing, especially if it didn’t plan to take, say, Gostisbehere because of his salary. Agreeing on the draft pick, then, becomes the issue.
The decision on whom to protect is important, but it isn’t as critical as getting someone to be Provorov’s partner on the top pairing.
No matter what the Flyers do, their No. 1 priority is to find a way to finally replace Niskanen. Maybe they do that by including Myers or Gostisbehere as part of a trade.