After knee injuries contributed to his disappointing play last season, Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere became a trade rumor that wouldn’t go away.
And that was before the Flyers signed free-agent defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who, like Gostisbehere, is known more for his mobility and offensive work than the way he defends.
But here we are, with Gostisbehere, who dazzled with his offense earlier in his career, still on the roster and healthy as training camp is underway, battling to be among the six defensive regulars.
Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers are locks on the back end.
That leaves Gostisbehere, Gustafsson, Robert Hagg, and Justin Braun competing for the three other spots. Mark Friedman is a long shot but could make the team as an eighth defenseman – if the Flyers carry that many – or as a taxi-squad member. Because a shortened training camp allows less time to evaluate players, coach Alain Vigneault might use seven defensemen in the season’s first month and see how things shake out.
Gostisbehere, 27, is just glad he’s still here.
“I’m getting pretty used to it now,” Gostisbehere said after Day 2 of training camp Tuesday in Voorhees, referring to the trade rumors. “It’s been a couple of seasons now. Obviously, I pay attention to it because it’s my life and I’ve built a life here in Philly. It’s definitely not the best when you hear your name in trade rumors, but nothing happened, and I am happy to be here and help my team do the best.”
Last season, Gostisbehere had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, one in January, the other in June.
He came back in good (but not great) health but was used in just five of 16 postseason games, one when Matt Niskanen was suspended, as the Flyers went with Robert Hagg, who is a stronger defensively and more physical. Gostisbehere played well when used.
“I was just trying to get healthy and back to the player I used to be,” Gostisbehere said. “Obviously, I felt not 100%, so for myself, I had a lot to worry about. The best I could do was worry about what was in my control, and that was getting healthy and being back to having that ability to be a good player again.”
Gostisbehere has battled injuries throughout his career, and “when you sprinkle some trade rumors on top of that and not playing and you can’t get in the lineup, it’s definitely tough mentally,” he said.
Before camp, Vigneault had a meeting with the player they call “Ghost.”
“Basically, we just had a good talk in the sense that it’s a clean slate,” Gostisbeher said. “We talked obviously about last season. I went through a tough time with injuries and really couldn’t be the player I wanted to be. I just told him I’m healthy and feel really good right now. This is the first time in a couple of years I feel really good. I think it was a good talk.”
“We both expressed ourselves,” Vigneault said. “He’s a very smart young man. He wants to play and wants to help this team win. He’s going to get an opportunity. He’s got to prove himself, obviously. … He’s coming in here with a real good attitude. Obviously, no exhibition games, but we’re paying a lot of attention to the scrimmages. We’ve got that intrasquad game on the 10th. We’ll see what happens, how well he plays, and how well he can help contribute to us winning games.”
Gostisbehere, who was paired with Hagg in Tuesday’s scrimmage, had a breathtaking rookie season (17 goals, 46 points in 64 games) in 2015-16, and had a career-high 65 points in 2017-18. The last two seasons have been a struggle: 37 points in 78 games, and 12 points in 42 games in an injury-riddled year.
“I’m in a very good place mentally because I am healthy,” he said. “That goes a long way with my play. I don’t have to worry about certain movements on the ice where maybe it will hurt or not. I just worry about the game itself. When you’re healthy, it’s a lot easier on the mind when you’re out there.”