“Believe me, it wasn’t one of those things where you go, ‘There’s a guy, he’s going to be a player,’ it wasn’t like that at all,” recalls Riley, now a Director of Player Development, then a New England bird dog who saw no reason to point at just another wee hummingbird. “I don’t think he weighed 150 pounds.
“I mean, you saw him as a pretty good little player, but that was the extent of it. This was just some kid whose name you couldn’t pronounce who demonstrated some qualities like agility and puck moving, but not to the degree like you said, ‘Alright, we got this Shayne Gostisbehere.’”
Two years later, the Flyers used a third-round pick on Gostisbehere, who has become producer of the second-highest points per game (after Chicago’s Artemi Panarin) of any NHL rookie, and, never mind a November 15 callup, has an increasing chance of becoming Philadelphia’s first-ever Calder Trophy winner.
Gostisbehere scored his 11th goal Tuesday night in a 6-3 victory at New Jersey, and now has points in more consecutive games (13) than any rookie defenseman in NHL history and any Flyer, at any position, in their 48 seasons.
That’s a lot of seasons, and it has been 33 of them since the franchise has unearthed a dangler of this magnitude -- 1983’s selection of Pelle Eklund at No. 161 –in anything other than a first round.
Part of the reason for that is that so many second rounders have been traded away. The other explanation is you gots to get lucky, in addition to being smart, to get late-round franchise changers, but evidence going back to Bobby Clarke (second round 1969) suggests that these strokes of fortune/homework are a necessity in building a Cup winner.
Duncan Keith was a 54th selection, Jonathan Quick went 72nd. The Flyers struck gold at No 78 in 2012 with Gostisbehere, who actually got passed over not just 77 times but 288 (counting the entire 211 selections in the 2011 draft).
“Shayne had grown,” recalls Riley. “He still probably was a buck-fifty, but he was now 5-10 or 5-10 1Ž2 and his intelligence with the puck was [working] at the college level.
“So then the question, as it is for everybody you look at, is, ‘Will this translate to the pro game at some point?’ There were these -- you want to call them clouds? -- hanging over him. He’s already been through one draft, he’s undersized, from Florida, and there’s never been a player from Florida in the NHL. Plus, he’s from Union College, which isn’t what Union College is in hockey today.
“I mean, there were all these reasons why he shouldn’t be [a prospect] but you leave the building scratching your head, saying, ‘The little guy is pretty good,
“I just kept coming back to his hockey IQ, his agility, his skating ability, and the fact that he could shoot the puck. I mean, at that size, how did he get so much torque on it? But he did.
“I probably saw him 10 or 11 times. After one of his games, against Cornell, I got a video, sent it to [Flyers Director of Scouting] Chris Pryor and said, “You need to watch this.’ That video was one of the things that got Sarge (Pryor) on board.
“We had several conversations about where [Gostisbehere] might fit into the landscape. As the year progressed, he went from maybe seventh round to sixth round, to ok, maybe fifth round or fourth.
“I give [Pryor] an awful lot of the credit. I was a regional scout, and it’s your job to promote the guys that are in your area, same as Todd Hearty would speak up for a kid in Quebec. You become a little attached, root for your guys. But it was Sarge who sold Homer (GM Paul Holmgren) on Shayne. And our group does a great job of [ranking] guys in the right spots.”
Gostisbehere had a good talk with Riley at a Schenectady bagel shop near the campus about a month before the draft. Today, Gostisbehere remembers it as one of his best interviews and a hint that the Flyers sincerely were interested,
“He was humble, happy to be meeting with me, not brash or entitled in any way, shape or form,” said Riley.
Gostisbehere was not invited to the combine. Although the draft intelligentsia had him as a third or fourth rounder, he chose not to attend the proceedings in Pittsburgh, his mother fearing a long, and crestfallen, day. But the Flyers had him as their preferred third rounder and took him there, after Scott Laughton and Anthony Stolarz.
Gostisbehere’s point totals didn’t explode over the next two seasons at Union before he turned pro, where the opposition is more formidable, sure, but so are the skills of teammates. “You see the chemistry he has with Giroux,” said Riley
You can also see that Gostisbehere needs a lot of work in his own end before he can be projected as an anchor defenseman. It has become too easy to forget that this was a good power play before he joined it and it shouldn’t be ignored that Gostisbehere is just one good piece of several from the last four drafts that could give the Flyers a dream blueline in the coming years.
Despite his initial impact, the team still is looking up at a playoff spot, so he hasn’t been the savior of anything yet, just an exciting young talent, 38 games into a career that will be only prove as good as his sincerity towards playing both ends of the ice. There is a lot of potentially head-spinning praise being thrown at Gostisbehere quickly. But on Saturday he was initially annoyed to be questioned following a loss about his rookie records. A good sign.
“They do a really good job at Union, as evident by their national championship,” said Riley. “They teach a lot of good stuff to help guys progress, but even going back before Union with Shayne, he did what you need to do.
“He played at the highest level available as a youth player. He did some of the USA Hockey stuff and got some exposure, then moved onto the prep school level and jumped on the opportunity to play at a Division I school.
“How did this happen? His Dad was a professional (jai lai) athlete and his sister a good skater (with Olympic aspirations), so I guess it’s genetic. But Shayne also worked his tail off. He’s a dedicated young man, turning into quite a professional.
“He’s got some work to do before we start enshrining him. But whether you are intrinsically involved or just a casual Flyers fan, it’s a great story.”