After taking a step back, Flyers' Ghost primed to regain rookie form

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Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere in a game last season against New Jersey.

A handful of Flyers prospects were on the ice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees recently, even though rookies didn’t have to report for a few weeks.

Goalies Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon were there, along with forwards Cole Bardreau and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. All four figure to be key contributors this season for Lehigh Valley, the Flyers’ AHL farm team.
Towering defenseman Sam Morin, who is expected to become a Flyers regular, was also at the rink, working with player-development coach Kjell Samuelsson and getting a head start on training camp.

In the middle of all the prospects was a speedy, energetic defenseman who not only is assured of a roster spot on the big team but also is being counted upon to be an impact player.

Hello, Shayne Gostisbehere.

The 24-year-old defenseman they call “Ghost” is determined to show that his sensational rookie season two years ago wasn’t a fluke, determined to rebound from a sophomore year that had more downs than ups.

“Last season, it obviously didn’t go like my first season,” Gostisbehere said, mindful he scored just seven goals in 2016-17; the previous season, he had 17 goals and 46 points in just 64 games and finished second in the rookie-of-the-year race. “You don’t get the bounces, per se, and it takes a toll on you mentally — and then you start looking for things you can change.”

Gostisbehere, who went through a stretch in which he seemed to hit a post or the crossbar with uncommon frequency, did manage 39 points last season, but he was minus-21. He had been plus-8 as a rookie.

“I think it was probably unrealistic to expect him to continue on the torrid pace he was on the year before,” club president Paul Holmgren said. “The other teams know what’s going on over time with their pre-scout and things like that.”
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Holmgren believes Gostisbehere will “continue to improve defensively, and hopefully, the offense is going to settle in where he’s going to be a productive guy. I think he will because he can make plays and he’s an exciting guy with the puck, and he’s got a big shot for someone who’s not a big guy.”

Gostisbehere underwent hip and abdominal surgeries last summer, but said he felt fine when the season started. Physically, that is. Mentally, he wasn’t quite sure if he was ready, and it might have caused him to be a bit out of sync.

“I was coming off rehabbing all summer instead of working out, and I have no excuses for this summer,” said Gostisbehere, who signed a six-year, $27 million deal in June. “I put a great summer of work in, and I’m excited for the upcoming season.”

The Flyers are expected to have one of the league’s younger teams, with as many as five rookies in the lineup.

“It’s cool. It’s exciting for us as a team and as an organization,” Gostisbehere said. “There’s been all this talk for a long time about how we have the best prospects, and I think we’re going to prove it now this year. I mean, there’s going to be a lot of young guys up front and on the back end, so it’s going to be fun. We’re going to be a young, exciting team.”

The defense could have two rookies because Sam Morin and Robert Hagg seem ready to take the next step. If they (or Travis Sanheim) make the jump, they would be with a defensive group that includes Ivan Provorov and Gostisbehere. That would give the Flyers four blue-liners who have played less than two full NHL seasons.

There’s a chance the smooth-skating Gostisbehere, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, will be paired with Morin, a 6-7, 227-pound, stay-at-home defender. Coach Dave Hakstol likes to pair defenders who have different skill sets.

“I played a couple of preseason games with [Morin], and his first NHL game, we played together last year,” Gostisbehere said. “Sammy’s a big guy. He knows what he has to do out there. He’s not going to put up a million points, but he’ll be a [nuisance] in front of the net; he’s going to be someone that guys don’t want to go up against in the corners, so that’s his game. He’s gotten some good years in with the Phantoms, and I think he’s ready for the next step.

“I’d love to play with Sammy, but we’re open to anything. It’s the coach’s decision, so whatever happens happens.”

Gostisbehere looked like his old self in the final month last season, frequently pirouetting from defenders with his trademark spin move at the blue line.

“It wasn’t like I hit a switch and the injury healed. It was nothing like that,” he said before reiterating he had no medical issues in 2016-17 and didn’t want to use it as an excuse. “I think it was strictly confidence [that returned]. I was put in the right situations, and that’s a big thing, too.  I flourished, and I knew I was one of the best players on the ice. When I know that, I think it really shows out there and it really helped our team, too. That’s the biggest thing for me — anything I can do, team-wise.”

Gostisbehere is eager for training camp to open in Voorhees on Sept. 15.

“We have a lot of young guys and we have a great group of veterans, a good core to show the young guys the way,” he said. “I think it’s a big, big learning season for us obviously coming up, but again, we’re a team, and we think we can win the Stanley Cup. That’s our ultimate goal.”