Sometimes, Philly fans throw snowballs at Santa.
Sometimes, they throw batteries at baseball players.
Sometimes, they throw wristbands at hockey players.
Sometimes, they just throw the hockey players away instead.
As Shayne Gostisbehere prepares to play his 500th career NHL game against the team that drafted him in the third round in 2012 — in the city where he made his mark as the Calder Trophy runner-up to Artemi Panarin in 2016 — this much is clear: Whatever plans the Philadelphia Flyers had to replace his cap space with younger players and remain in playoff contention have failed in the short term.
Philadelphia missed the playoffs last season, finishing just four points ahead of the rebuilding Coyotes. As the two teams square off at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night, the Flyers are just two points ahead of the Coyotes and will miss the playoffs again.
The Flyers do not have a defenseman producing at Gostisbehere’s offensive clip, and they went out and acquired smallish and defensively deficient Tony DeAngelo after GM Chuck Fletcher touted the Gostisbehere trade as a way to change the mix of the blue line corps, making the group more defensively sound and making it harder to oppose.
Not even coach John Tortorella can salvage this mess.
On the flip side, Gostisbehere had 51 points last season for a team that scored the fewest goals in the league (207). This season, he’s on pace for 59 points — which would be six points off his career high — and it’s looking like the Coyotes will be able to flip the impending free agent for assets at the trade deadline. In his two seasons with Arizona, Gostisbehere is tied for 13th among NHL defensemen in points with 77.
“I wasn’t expecting to have such a good year in Arizona last year, but I was obviously thankful for all the opportunities I was given by my coaches,” Gostisbehere said of his renaissance. “It was just a combination of everything — confidence, opportunity and feeling really good.
“With the way I play, you kind of need your knees and my knees were not healthy there for, I would say about two and a half years. I finally had a really good summer before last season, and I felt really good again this summer. I think it’s just had that snowball effect. You’re feeling good health-wise, you get your confidence back and then you’re playing a lot and it just all comes together.”
Let’s recap how we got here.
On July 22, 2021, the Flyers traded Gostisbehere, a 2022 second-round pick that became defenseman Artem Duda and a 2022 seventh-round pick (traded) to the Coyotes. The idea was to clear his $4.5 million cap hit and the final two years of his contract with a total remaining salary of $5.25 million.
The return? Nothing.
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong called me after the trade and I honestly asked him three times about that so-called return because I wanted to make certain that I had heard it right. There wasn’t any return other than the cap space that Philadelphia gained. The Flyers literally paid the Coyotes to take on Gostisbehere’s cap hit so they could re-sign Carter Hart and Travis Sanheim, open opportunities for others and have some flexibility in the market.
“Getting traded for nothing definitely hurts you inside as a player,” Gostisbehere said. “I just thank them for trading me to a place that was going to give me an opportunity to get my career going. I’ve done some great things for my career to get back on track and show everyone the player I am when I’m healthy; the player I could be.
“But I think a little more went into the trade than people think. Chuck Fletcher wanted me to go to a place where I would have an opportunity. That just shows you how much of a good guy he is. It wasn’t really a discussion, but I think they knew that’s what I wanted in general, and I think they realized what I had meant to the organization for so long. They weren’t just gonna throw me to the wolves and put me somewhere where I wouldn’t have a chance.”
Coyotes coach André Tourigny knew about Gostisbehere’s offensive abilities and his power-play prowess — both of which have been on display this season — but he has consistently mentioned Gostisbehere’s competitive fires and his attention to defensive detail as overlooked qualities.
“He is way more competitive than people give him credit for, which sometimes is a downside because he lets his emotions get the best of him here and there,” Tourigny said. “That is something he needs to be aware of and care for, but he wants to be good. He wants to help the team. He’s a good teammate. He’s passionate, and not just about hockey. We can talk about a lot of stuff. He’s fun to be around, he’s a good leader and obviously he has all the tools offensively.”
When Jakob Chychrun returned to the lineup from a wrist injury, Tourigny paired him with Gostisbehere and the two have taken off offensively.
Since November 23, Jakob Chychrun and Shayne Gostisbehere have combined for 33 points.— Arizona Coyotes PR (@AZCoyotesPR) December 30, 2022
That’s the most among two defensemen on the same team in the NHL in that span. pic.twitter.com/TlAlzMsnC7
“If you’re watching the games, they have a really positive impact on the game and I think they are playing their best hockey; both of them,” Tourigny said.
Gostisbehere is still prone to costly turnovers. It’s a reality that comes with playing with the puck so often. In a 5-3 loss to Tampa on New Year’s Eve, Alex Killorn stripped the puck from Gostisbehere at the Lightning blue line and scored on a breakaway with 1:01 left in the second period to break a 3-3 tie.
Gostisbehere chalked it up to bad ice at the end of the period and a bouncing puck — a late-period reality that assistant coach John Madden drove home.
“That’s just something I need to realize more than learn,” Gostisbehere said. “When he’s saying something, I need to listen to him. That’s just a maturity thing. You could be in this game for a while but it always teaches something.”
On the other hand, Gostisbehere no longer worries that such a mistake is going to cost him ice time, provided those mistakes don’t pile up.
“Say I do make a bad play out there,” he said. “Your coach isn’t getting on you. You’re not worried about getting sat and you’re not worried about making a mistake. I think that grows your confidence and it really helps you as a player. You start seeing a different game out there in the sense that you’re seeing plays that you can go and make and you’re not double-thinking yourself every time.”
Gostisbehere has no idea where he will be playing when this season ends. He’s open to staying with the Coyotes, but he’s also cognizant of the Coyotes’ plan and the way that league business works.
As he prepares for this milestone game against his former team, however, he no longer feels uncertainty about his game.
“Last year, I was way more nervous than I am now about playing a game there,” he said. “Philadelphia is a tough, tough town to play in, just going back there in general, but I didn’t know what to expect after playing there so long and then ending the way it did.
“I feel like it’s a little bit of luck that I got to showcase what I can do, but I think more of it’s hard work and showing the coach that I can be the player that can lead this team and be a difference maker every night. Me and coach talk about it all the time, but you know, ever since I got to the desert it comes down to that simple cliché: I’m just having fun playing hockey again.”
Top photo of Shayne Gostisbehere via Getty Images