BENCHING A good young player is a delicate gambit. You're betting the kid understands why, doesn't take it personally, bites his lip rather than create a sideshow that could fracture your room. Nerlens Noel squawked when he was iced in mid-December, got his chance, and has carved a valued niche with it in the Sixers' preferred rotation. Jahlil Okafor, clearly offended by his benching, has returned to the lineup in Joel Embiid's absence every bit the defensive liability that put him on the outs in the first place.
During practice Wednesday at SkateZone in Voorhees, Shayne Gostisbehere returned to his role of playing the point on the Flyers power play. This would appear to signal the end of a three-game exile designed to clear his head and hone his game, an exile that reflected head coach Dave Hakstol's renewed emphasis to the defensive sellout that characterized last season's playoff surge.
From the moment the puck dropped in October until he was removed after an ugly 5-1 loss to Carolina, Ghost had become the symbol of teamwide permeability at the back end. His team-leading minus-19 this season reflects many things, not the least of which is the continued undependability of their best offensive players. Whether you're talking about Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn or even Wayne Simmonds, the Flyers' offensive impotency has put their blue line and goaltending under the hottest of lamps, and left burn marks all over the Flyers' 23-year-old defenseman.
"It's definitely motivating,"' Gostisbehere said of his forced sabbatical. "It actually sucks. But you have to take positives from it. Be a good teammate about it. Can't feel bad for yourself and expect people to feel sorry for you.
"I don't take it personally at all. I look at it as my coaches are doing the best for me in my development as a young player. I know we have 19-year-olds on this team and I'm turning 24 this April. But I still look at myself as a young guy."
That 19-year-old is, of course, Ivan Provorov, who turned 20 last month and habitually receives the most ice time of any Flyers' defenseman. He is tied for fifth on the team in scoring and owns a comparatively respectable minus-7 amid a team lined with double-digit offenders.
He is wiser and older than his years, and has been weaned on the Canadian system that more closely mimics the NHL experience than Gostisbehere's college-based route. At Union College, flaws exposed in Ghost's game over a weekend slate of games could be worked out via a week's worth of practice. But as Hakstol noted again Wednesday, the early part of the schedule did not afford that luxury, and Ghost's early physical miscues - which may have been influenced by offseason surgery to his hip and abdomen - morphed into toxic habits.
"I was also coming off major ACL surgery last year," he said. "That was more of a major surgery. If I had a bad year last year, people would have said it was because of my ACL. But I had a good year. People are looking for excuses, and some players may be afraid to say it when it's themselves. But that's what I did. I looked in the mirror and I realized what I need to change in my game, and it's definitely the defensive side. The offense will take care of itself."
Specifically, Gostisbehere has been working on his quickness, both with the puck on his stick and in pursuit. "Body positioning," he said. "I'm not the biggest guy, but I'm a quick guy. And I can use my abilities a lot more. That's what I've taken a look at the most. Putting myself in positions where I can get back to pucks quicker. I can move my feet when the puck's there and not waiting to take the hit. Just get out of there."
Said Hakstol: "Motivation is a factor, but the biggest part of this is the work he's been able to do. In a year where to this point we've had extremely limited practice time, he's had four or five really good work days. That will be a positive.
"I think every player in every situation is different . . . No player wants to be out of the lineup, but I think in his case with the amount of attention and spotlight and scrutiny he's been under, it makes it even a bit more challenging. Yet that's reality. So use it, handle it in the right way. And I think he's done that."
Is it all he will need? To reclaim the two-way potency of last season? Thursday night should at least point him that way, and point it out to us, too.
"I just want to show that I am a reliable defenseman," he said.
"Last year is in the past. And, yeah, it was a great year and people are setting the benchmark for that's what I can do. But it's the learning process. There's gonna be your ups and downs. Obviously, it's not the best moment for me right now. But I think I can learn from this. And it's going to be better for me in my career."