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MELTZER: What sets "Ghost" apart

Flyers contributor explores the defenseman's mental toughness and maturity as the biggest reason for his success

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

It would be easy for Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere to coast through the preseason until the final game before the start of the 2018-19 regular season. 

He has been a lock for the NHL roster for the last three Septembers. He's coming off an excellent regular season campaign last year, surpassing even his Calder Trophy finalist rookie season of 2015-16. No one would gripe if he had a so-so exhibition slate, because there is full confidence that "Ghost" will be ready to roll come opening night in Las Vegas on Oct. 4.

Gostisbehere, however, only knows one way to play hockey. He goes all out, every single day, including in practice and preseason games.

In the modern-day NHL, stellar 82-game seasons typically begin with strong offseasons and solid training camps. Last summer, coming off a down year in his second NHL season, Gostisbehere spent his offseason in Voorhees, working out at the Flyers new comprehensive training complex.

"I didn't have my best year [in 2016-17], and I really tried to buckle down during the summer. The results were there, pretty much. I was, overall, pretty happy with the way the season went, at least the regular season. I wasn't happy with the playoffs, individually for me and for our team. But, overall, I think I made progress and the Flyers as a team made progress. Now it's time to turn the page and keep trying to improve," Gostisbehere said.

LOOKING FOR MORE IN 2018-19

This summer, Gostisbehere followed the same offseason regiment. First, he took a few weeks off to regroup from a physically and mentally grueling season; not even looking at his hockey equipment, Then he spent his summer in the team's training compound in Voorhees. 

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I did the same thing, with the same trainers. Nutrition wise, actually, I think I did a little better this summer," Gostisbehere said. 

Gostisbehere has scored three power play goals this preseason, bringing the heat on scorching one-timers from the point or the top of the left circle. Just as important, though, he has set a positive example by the way he competes to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. He is used to giving up size on the defensive side of the puck but he hates to cede territory to anyone, even in a preseason game. Gostisbehere has always had a quick defensive stick but improved his gap control over the years and even added a surprising physical dimension for an undersized player. 

"Checking the stat sheet, I had a great offensive year, but I thought I brought my defensive game to a whole different level," said Gostisbehere, who posted a career-high 65 points last season along with strong puck-possession analytics but also bumped up his performance without the puck.

"I think, for me, you don't want to just be an offensive D-man. I don't want to be. I want to be a reliable two-way guy. I want to play in all situations one day. I think for me, growing as a player and as a defenseman, it's going to get there."

Therein lies one of the keys to understanding Gostisbehere: He is a very self-confident player, but not a cocky one. He takes nothing for granted and is self-motivated. 

In Friday's preseason game in Allentown against the New York Islanders, Gostisbehere had to leave after two periods for precautionary reasons. The next morning, the star blueliner was back on the ice in Voorhees, practicing every bit as hard as the "bubble" guys who are in a fight to make the roster.

As a 25-year-old fourth-season NHLer and fifth-season pro, "Ghost" is an established offensive star and greatly improved all-around player. He still wants more, though. Seeing more penalty killing time, being on the ice when there is a one-goal lead late in third periods, making a two-way impact at 5-on-5 that rivals even his power play prowess: These are the goals that drive Gostisbehere to work as hard as he does in camp.  

"I think that's a testament to him, his compete level and how much he cares about the hockey team and the details of his game. We all know about his offensive abilities. But there's an overall level he strives to get to and, yeah, it does set an example when a guy like Ghost or like [Claude Giroux] is committed like that. He's worked hard at it and he'll continue to work," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said.

The combination of talent, work ethic, self-belief and burning desire for constant self-improvement is how a smallish converted forward from an atypical hockey development background made it to the NHL. It's how the young defenseman overcame a lost first pro season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. It's how he overcame the adversity of a rough second NHL season - which included a couple of trips to the press box as a healthy scratch - after his stellar NHL rookie season. Right now, it's how he's processed an excellent third regular season and put the disappointment of a subpar playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins behind him. 

To Shayne Gostisbehere, his most important walk from the locker room to the ice is his next one. The space in between is time to prepare. It's always been that way, and that's why he's an overachiever who may yet have still another level to unlock in his game.

 

STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD

Walking into the Skate Zone for his first Flyers Development Camp back in July 2012, a 19-year-old Gostisbehere was just another face in the crowd to many. He was an unheralded third-round pick (No. 78 overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, and one of the smaller young hopefuls in attendance. 

Then he stepped on the ice. There was a difference between him and most of the others. 

Apart from his abilities to pass and shoot the puck at a more advanced level than most, there was a difference in how he carried himself. Gostisbehere exuded poise and a quiet sense of self-confidence. Very little, if anything, overwhelmed him. 

For example, there was a rather old-school drill done on the second day of camp. The defensemen had to make a breakout pass with a forechecker bearing down on them. Derian Hatcher - at the time, a Flyers development coach and, during his playing days, one of the NHL's most physically intimidating players - played the role of forechecker. Although Hatcher certainly wasn't out to blast anyone with a big hit, he also wasn't going to make things too easy. Gostisbehere, small as he was (listed at 160 pounds on the camp roster and probably only about 10 pounds heavier in reality), was unphased. Most of his passes were tape-to-tape, even in a July camp setting.

Gostisbehere also stood out during his media availability. The majority of the kids were shy around the press, although the line of questioning was friendly and relatively easy. Gostisbehere, along with then-Phantoms defenseman Brandon Manning, was one of the few who made constant eye contact and give detailed responses. Manning, however, was several years older and had a pro year under his belt. Gostisbehere was a 19-year-old college sophomore.   

"My attitude is basically just keep pushing," Gostisbehere said during his first Development Camp interview. "I've been told I would never play college hockey, I've had other people tell me I would never get drafted in the NHL and it's happened. For kids who are out there like me just keeping pushing and keep striving for your goal. If you get knocked down, just keep trying."

 

HOW IT BEGAN

Born the same year that the Florida Panthers came into existence, Gostisbehere regularly attended NHL games with his grandparents, who were Panthers charter season ticket holders and came back year after year. Enthralled by the speed and excitement of the sport, the youngster immediately took to the sport. He was already used to going to the rink, having accompanied his sister many times.

"My sister was a national level figure skater," he recalled. "She was always at the rink and I was always there so one day I asked my mom if I could try hockey and stuck with it ever since."

In his early years of playing, Gostisbehere was a forward. He idolized high-scoring winger Pavel Bure, who scored 58-plus goals in back-to-back seasons as a member of the Panthers. Before long, however, Gostisbehere switched positions. 

"One of my skating coaches was like, 'try defense but still be offensive', and I stuck with it ever since. I love it, I'm offensive but I like playing defense, too. I love jumping up to the play and I feel like I'm always the fourth forward up there," said Gostisbehere.

As he adapted to his new position, Gostisbehere increasingly paid attention to what the top defensemen in the game do to approach the game on the ice. Never the biggest player on the ice, he learned to use his speed and smarts to compensate. Both offensively and defensively, Gostisbehere prefers to be aggressive in making things happen rather than simply being reactive.

Seeking a higher level of competition and coaching, Gostisbehere went to Connecticut to play his high school hockey for the New Kent School. He was then recruited by Union College. Although Union would soon become a collegiate hockey power that would win the NCAA championship during Gostisbehere's junior season (his final one before turning pro), they were not a big destination for NHL scouts at the time he was first recruited. As a freshman, however, Gostisbehere's Union College team reached the Frozen Four and the corner was officially turned. 

 

DISCOVERED, DRAFTED & DEVELOPED

John Riley, then a Flyers amateur scout and now one of the organization's development coaches, was the one who did the primary scouting of Gostisbehere. Beyond the first two rounds of the NHL Draft, in which consensus rules the day, organizations rely heavily on their scouts to step on prospects within their regional home bases whom other scouts may have only been able to view once or twice - or sometimes, not at all. That is why amateur scouting nowadays has so many regional checkpoints, including ones across the United States and Europe.

Gostisbehere did not attend the 2012 Draft in Pittsburgh. He sat on the couch at his family's home in Florida and watched the two-day Draft unfold on television. When he saw Philadelphia had just taken him with the 78th overall pick, he rejoiced.

"When I saw my name, I jumped off the couch. I mean, literally, I jumped off the couch," he said with a huge smile during his first 2012 Development Camp interview. "The Flyers are a team with so much history, so much going for it. I couldn't be prouder to put on the orange and black."

Gostisbehere also made certain at his first Development Camp to make mention that there was an already familiar face among the attendees: his freshman season defense partner at Union, Greg Coburn. The younger brother of then-Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn, the 24-year-old defenseman was an invitee at the 2012 camp. 

"Greg is an older guy and I don't think he's been to one of these camps before, but his brother is in the organization obviously, so it's easy for me. I mean, your D partner is here with you, you can't ask for a better situation than that," Gostisbehere said in 2012. 

While it was nice for Gostisbehere to give a public nod to a friend and teammate who was in camp, it crystal clear even then that, all on his own, Gostisbehere had the "It Factor" in his mental acuity and maturity as well as his skills on the ice.

In the two seasons that followed, Gostisbehere went on win a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships and to be a driving force in Union's run to the NCAA championship. The national title winning game, appropriately, was played at the Wells Fargo Center.

 

LEARNING FROM ADVERSITY

Over the course of his four professional seasons to date, Gostisbehere has attained some lofty heights. 

He was 21 years old when he made his NHL debut on Oct. 25, 2014. The next year, he rattled off a 15-game point streak - the longest by a rookie defenseman in NHL history and the best by a rookie at any position in Flyers' franchise history. He scored 17 goals. He was the top runner-up for the Calder Trophy despite not being called up until Nov. 14, 2014 (due to veteran defenseman Mark Streit needing surgery). In 2017-18, Gostisbehere eclipsed his rookie output by 19 points.

However, it hasn't been just one accolade after another for "Ghost." There have been plenty of rough patches in his professional career that tested his mettle. 

In early Nov. 2014, while playing an AHL game for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Gostisbehere suffered a partially torn ACL on a harmless looking sequence behind the net. He pushed hard to be able to return late the same season but did not quite make it. 

"I'm not going to lie: that was very hard on me," Gostisbehere said during the Flyers' 2015 training camp. "I mean, the physical part, you do all the rehab steps and you work with the trainers. They were great. But it's a rough time. You are around the team sometimes but you are kind of by yourself a lot. You don't feel like you're helping or your part of the team. So I just focused on getting back, but you can't rush it too much. So that part was tough."

Despite the huge success of his 2015-16 rookie NHL season, Gostisbehere had a rough first playoff series against the Washington Capitals in the spring of 2016. He underwent offseason hip/groin surgery and, after a somewhat shortened summer, played in the World Cup of Hockey. Then he hit a rather severe second-year slump with the Flyers. 

The player noticeably struggled on the defensive side of the puck, faring poorly in the trenches as well as in some of his decision-making. After he was unable to play his way out of the slump, he wound up as a healthy scratch three times, including back-to-back games in one stretch. The decision was immensely unpopular among Flyers fans but the player himself understood Hakstol's reasoning, even if he didn't like it at the time. 

Late in the 2016-17 season, Gostisbehere seemed to recover his form. He started to have fun on the ice again, working on details that needed to be better addressed but also not obsessing over the fine-line distinctions over when to take risks and when to play safe. During preparation time between games, he could analyze where he needed to improve. On game nights, he tried to put those preparations into practice but simply played the game. 

 

FROM THIS POINT ON

Today, Gostisbehere can reflect on those tough times from his second season with a clear head. From the adversity, he learned more about himself as a hockey player. 

"You've got to be mature. You could be a baby and cry about it and say a whole bunch of things. You've got to realize [the coach] cares about you. Obviously, it worked itself... I realize now it was probably the best thing for me. He's not just going to leave me in the fire if I'm not playing good. He'll sit me down even if the whole town doesn't agree with it. I think that's where I got the respect for him," Gostisbehere said.

Last season, after his intensive training summer in Voorhees, Gostisbehere's strongest improvements came in his two-way game and physicality without sacrificing point production. 

"A little more tenacity, a little more snot, whatever you'd like to say. Just getting in there. I felt a lot better body-wide and whatnot. I'm a smaller guy for a defenseman and I'm not going to move anyone out there but if I use my speed, my skating ability and my smarts, that's a big thing as a defenseman, too. I definitely felt stronger going into the season, and I felt I did maintain that during the season as well," Gostisbehere said.

Although he is only 25 - still a young man, and perhaps only now just entering the prime of his NHL career - Gostisbehere is now a veteran. He cares not only about sharpening his own game but it doing what he can to help out the less experienced players on the team. It could something as simple as offering to switch defensive sides if paired together or by setting an example at practice, but "Ghost" has made the transition from part of the "kid" group to part of the nucleus.

What's more, he is still hungry for improvement, both as an individual player and for the team as a whole. The club is coming off a 98-point campaign and he's coming off a career-best year and national recognition as one of the top 20 defensemen in the league (as chosen by NHL Network) but Gostisbehere is nowhere close to being satisfied.

"For myself, I think I still be a lot more consistent defensively. I can improve there, so I'm focused on the D side going into the season. You look at [frequent partner Ivan Provorov] and Provy is a machine. Both sides of the puck, he's amazing. I know I can get better, too. Like I said, I want to play in all situations. As a team, I think we can be more consistent, less streaky. We definitely can, and have to, be better in the playoffs. So there's no complacency on my part," Gostisbehere said.

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