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Carchidi: Flyers need the Ghost of Christmas Past to go further in the future

ANAHEIM - Flyers general manager Ron Hextall used the word "fine" when describing Shayne Gostisbehere's sophomore season. The player they call Ghost has been adequate. Nothing great. Nothing extraordinary.

ANAHEIM - Flyers general manager Ron Hextall used the word "fine" when describing Shayne Gostisbehere's sophomore season.

The player they call Ghost has been adequate. Nothing great. Nothing extraordinary.

Nothing like last season.

The swift and elusive defenseman took the NHL by storm in 2015-16. Seventeen goals in 64 games. An NHL record for rookie defensemen with a 15-game points streak. A second-place finish in the rookie-of-the-year voting.

More than anybody, he was the reason the Flyers revived their season and earned a playoff berth.

Fast forward to this season. Gostisbehere, 23, has shown flashes of that greatness, but the skating room is tougher to find. Ditto the open lanes that enabled him to get off uncontested shots. His defense - he was plus-8 last year and is minus-8 this season - has been spotty.

It's all part of the learning curve, part of what makes it more difficult when you become a known commodity.

Hextall called Gostisbehere's stunningly smooth transition to the NHL last season "the perfect storm."

The second year in the league "is harder than the first year; everything is fresh and teams don't know you in the first year," Hextall said before a recent game. "In your second year, teams know you and come harder at you. They take away your time and space. They scout you and try to get to know your tendencies."

Hextall was asked whether he was disappointed in Gostisbehere's progress.

"There's progress," he said. "The one thing about last year with Ghost, everything that could have possibly gone right, went right. This year is probably more of the norm than last year. You don't score all those overtime winners. Pucks kept going in. It was just kind of a dream season. This year is more probably a reality. He's still a great weapon on the power play and with his skating. There's nights when he probably hasn't been skating quite as well, but his skating is a huge asset. So, yeah, he's been fine."

Gostisbehere, who started slowly last season with the AHL's Phantoms, has four goals and is on a pace for nine, about half of his total from last season, when he was breathtaking with the puck, setting a record for goals scored by a Flyers rookie defenseman despite not being called up until Nov. 14.

He is also on a 37-point pace if he plays a full season; he had 46 points in just 64 games last season.

"It's a little frustrating when you don't see pucks go in," Gostisbehere said. "I think the biggest thing for me is the team's success. We've played our way into a playoff situation ... and the rest will come for me. You've got to get through the humps and figure out yourself as a player."

Gostisbehere's offense needs to be at a high level because his defense will never be all-star caliber, primarily because of the size he yields to most forwards. One area he needs to improve: his shooting accuracy. He is fourth on the Flyers with 81 shots on goal, but he has the third-most shots (61) in the NHL that have missed the net.

Because teams are defending him more closely, Gostisbehere has been firing numerous shots from less-than-optimal angles, making it more difficult to put the puck on goal.

The offensive decline, he believes, has more to do with himself than the increased defensive coverage he is getting.

"I think it comes down to myself," said Gostisbehere, who will be honored by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association as the city's Athlete of the Year at its 113th annual banquet Feb. 3 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. "It comes down to having confidence with the puck. A lot of good things happened for me last year, but I can't just be like, 'Oh, that would have gone in last year.' I'll figure myself out as a player."

The Florida native's overall game has improved since he was surprisingly benched by coach Dave Hakstol on Nov. 17.

"I think he's playing pretty good hockey," Hakstol said. "I can't imagine things going much better, offensively, than it did for Ghost when he came in last year. This is a hard league to produce points in, and even as a good offensive player, you're going to go through times where you are doing things pretty well but not getting the results. I think for the last six weeks, Ghost has done a pretty good job. He's really working to do things the right way. He keeps doing that, the point production will steadily be there."

The Flyers need the Ghost of the past. They have sputtered recently, and their offense has been on a decline since a blistering start.

After a 10-game winning streak put them in a playoff spot, they have lost five of their last six. The Gostisbehere-helmed power play - which needs to be effective for this team to consistently win games - has gone just 1 for 14 in that span and 1 for 21 in the last eight games.

"The power play is a big thing, but it's not the biggest thing in our game," Gostisbehere said. "We try to focus on five-on-five and about ourselves. We try to go out there and stick to our system and play harder - and I think that's gotten away from us a little bit with the effort we've put in."

As winger Wayne Simmonds said, there's no reason to panic about the team's recent skid. But there is reason for concern. The Flyers' playoff lead is dwindling. They need to show more consistency, and getting Gostisbehere back to his rookie form looms as a key ingredient to that recipe for success.