PHILADELPHIA -- The best defensemen in Philadelphia Flyers history -- Joe Watson, Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, Chris Pronger -- have one thing in common: All were drafted and developed by other teams prior to coming to the Flyers.
Could Shayne Gostisbehere be the player that changes all that?
A 2012 third-round pick (No. 78), Gostisbehere had a brilliant goal and two assists to lead Union College to a 7-4 win against the University of Minnesota on Saturday in the NCAA championship game.
Union College Dutchmen celebrate their win against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the 2014 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championship Game. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gostisbehere was a plus-7 with five shots on goal, was part of a penalty-killing unit that stopped the Gophers on three of its four power plays and was on the ice in the final seconds to help protect the lead. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four.
"He's a big-time player and this is the biggest game of our lives and he really stepped up," Union captain Mat Bodie said. "He's the motor [Saturday] that really got us going."
Gostisbehere's offensive gifts are obvious, but it's his improved defensive play that has the Flyers excited. His play on the penalty kill was big, as was his blocked shot with less than two minutes remaining in regulation and his team protecting a 5-4 lead. The puck went to Bodie, who started the play that led to Kevin Sullivan's goal to ice the game.
"His game has developed as more of a rounded game now," Flyers director of scouting Chris Pryor told NHL.com. "He pays more attention to the defensive side of the puck and his defensive responsibilities. Plus he brings the offensive side of his game. He's become a more well-rounded player the last couple years."
Gostisbehere said the credit for his defensive improvement goes to the coaching staff, especially assistant coach Jason Tapp.
"They've worked with me every day for the last three years on the defensive side of my game," he said. "They really improved that aspect of my game and I can't thank them enough. Coach Tapp, going the extra ice with him and doing whatever I could to get better with the defensive side."
Union coach Rick Bennett said it's easy to be a good teacher when the pupil is as willing as Gostisbehere.
"He's a willing guy when he gets out there," Bennett said. "He practices so hard, and games are almost sometimes easy for him because he practices so hard."
While that blocked shot was important, the lasting memory of Gostisbehere will be his play to score Union's first goal. With the Dutchmen trailing 1-0 on Justin Kloos' goal 2:37 into the game, Gostisbehere picked up the puck on the Union side of the red line and slalomed his way through the Minnesota skaters. As he crossed the Gophers' blue line he wired a shot between the legs of Minnesota's Justin Holl and past goalie Adam Wilcox at 9:26.
Then late in the period he set up the go-ahead goal when his pass through the offensive zone found Eli Lichtenwald, who beat Wilcox to give Union a 3-2 lead.
"He's a special player," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "I helped out with the [United States] World Juniors two years ago out in Lake Placid. I had heard he was a pretty good player but I hadn't seen him. When we were out there, it was like this guy is a serious talent. He's a special player, and he kind of controlled the game back there. In my opinion he was the best player on the ice."
The only thing that working against Gostisbehere is his size. He's listed at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds by the Flyers, while Union has him weighing 170. But Gostisbehere is 20 years old, meaning he's got time to add muscle. The Flyers are willing to wait for his size to catch up to his abilities.
"He's exciting to watch," Pryor said. "He's got offensive flair to his game that you just don't teach. Some kids have it and some kids play a different style game. He has that knack for finding holes, jumping up with the play and seeing things from an offensive standpoint, which is a unique ability from his standpoint. It's exciting to watch."
It also was exciting for Union fans, who celebrated the school's first men's hockey championship since the program moved to Division I in 1991. It also was the first NCAA title of any kind by the school since the men's lacrosse team shared the 1929 title with Navy.
Bodie, Lichtenwald, Sullivan, Daniel Ciampini and Max Novak each had a goal and an assist and goalie Colin Stevens made 36 saves. Bodie and Stevens joined Gostisbehere on the All-Tournament team.
Taylor Cammarata and Kloos each had a goal and an assist and Sam Warning and Hudson Fasching scored for Minnesota. Wilcox stopped 41 shots. Warning and forward Kyle Rau also were named to the All-Tournament team.
The game turned for Union in a span of 1:54 late in the first period, when Mike Vecchione, Lichtenwald and Ciampini scored to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.
Vecchione started the run at 15:09 when he capped a flurry of shots from in close by the Dutchmen by lifting his third chance over Wilcox from just outside the crease. Fifty-seven seconds later Lichtenwald scored the go-ahead goal after his initial shot was blocked by Kloos. Then 57 seconds after that, Ciampini scored at 17:03 after another flurry of shots from in close.
"All three of those goals were pack of wolves goals where guys were on net, and second and third chances," Bodie said. "I think that's probably one of the biggest staples of our team all year."
Minnesota was drained by Union's offensive avalanche.
"It just got away from us," Kloos said. "We hung our goalie to dry. He's been our best player all year, and for us to put him through that was kind of disappointing. I think we just made mental mistakes."
Cammarata, a 2013 third-round pick (No. 76) of the New York Islanders, scored off his own rebound 1:13 into the second to get the Gophers within a goal at 4-3, but Novak finished a give-and-go with Sullivan at 5:31 of the third period to push Union's lead to 5-3.
Minnesota again got within one when Fasching, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, won a battle in the crease to get to the rebound of a Travis Boyd shot and shove it past Stevens with 3:40 left in regulation. But then Gostisbehere started the play that led to Sullivan's goal with 1:22 left, and Bodie capped the scoring by hitting the empty net with 44.2 seconds left.
While Gostisbehere celebrated with his teammates after the game, the Flyers' brass enjoyed the moment as well.
Gostisbehere hopes to become a full-time player at Wells Fargo Center at some point; right now the college junior said a professional career is something he's "not really thinking about."
The Flyers also aren't concerned, but know Gostisbehere will be a big part of their future, whenever that future arrives.
"He can make plays, he can skate, he can shot the puck," Pryor said. "Those things are attributes that are going to give him a real good opportunity. Who's to say when that's opportunity is going to come? It's going to come from Shayne and the development side. But he's got some things that you just don't teach. It's attractive from an NHL standpoint.
"Time and patience are going to be a big factor [and] we have both of those. We're excited."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK