No one expected Shayne Gostisbehere to be on the Philadelphia Flyers’ roster so soon, but he's making it awful hard to send him back to the AHL.
That Shayne Gostisbehere is here is no surprise. This has always been expected of him.
Here, of course, is the NHL and the Philadelphia Flyers’ lineup.
Ever since his final game with Union College 19 months ago—ironically at Philly’s Wells Fargo Center—he’s been seen as the Flyers' star defenseman of the future.
Gotisbehere led his then-under the radar school—based in Schenectady, N.Y., it doesn’t offer hockey scholarships—to its first-ever NCAA title with stunning Frozen Four victories over powerhouses Boston College and the University of Minnesota. He scored a goal, registered two assists and was +7 in his final collegiate game, which was played in front of fans who have waited desperately since Bill Clinton was president for their team to develop another homegrown defenseman. Chris Therien (1994-2006 was the last homegrown blueliner to have a prolonged run with the Flyers and these notoriously hard-hearted Philadelphians have had a soft spot for the kid they call “Ghost” who never seems to disappear in big moments.
“In that game, as we say, he was the lead singer,” Union coach Rick Bennett recently told SI.com. “He was our best player. You could tell right from the opening face-off, he was pretty plugged in and that he wanted to make a statement. And he did.”
Gostisbehere suited up for his fifth NHL game on Nov. 19, when his Flyers played well but succumbed to the seemingly arbitrary nature of 3-on-3 overtime against the San Jose Sharks, capping a first week in the NHL that was a bit of a surprise for him at least.
“The first day, I get called up and go in the bathroom and I’m like, ‘Why’s there a remote control in the bathroom?’,” Gostisbehere says. “I clicked the power button and there was a TV in the mirror. At first I’m like, ‘What’s the point of that?’”
A TV in the bathroom mirror wasn’t the only bit of culture shock for 22-year-old blueliner. When he was called up to play his first NHL game this season against the Carolina Hurricanes on November 14, his initiation to big-league life began when he was handed a plain white envelope filled with cash before boarding the team’s luxury charter to Raleigh.
The NHL’s per diem, which allots players upwards of $105 in nontaxable spending cash for each day spent on the road, is one of the many perks of playing in the best league in the world.
“You go to dinner up here and it runs out pretty quickly,” Gostisbehere says. “You have to use it wisely. Some guys spend it and others save it up.”
During his first week in the NHL, the Florida native's earnings have been just over $15,200—more than 20% above what he’d rake while playing for the American Hockey League’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. If he stays with the Flyers until Mark Streit, the man he replaced, returns from injury, Gostisbehere will earn more in six weeks than he would by spending all season in the AHL.
For a full NHL season, Gostisbehere will be paid $925,000. In the AHL, while riding buses, receiving less than half of the total per diem, and cooking his own food, he’ll get $70,000.
The AHL doesn’t have TVs in the bathroom, either.
“It’s all so different. Everything’s so first class,” he says. “It’s a lavish life, but you can’t get complacent. It’s a privilege to play in this league. You have to earn it.
“But putting on an NHL jersey, a Flyers jersey, that’s where I really pinch myself.”
If Gostisbehere is still pinching himself, it is hard to blame him. Although he’s always been expected to become a Flyer, it still raises eyebrows that he is one this soon. Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall has repeatedly vowed to remain patient with his team’s prospects.
Considering that a torn ACL cost Gostisbehere all but five AHL games last season and he had only 19 career games with the Phantoms prior to his first NHL call-up this season, he doesn’t seem to have nearly the amount of seasoning that Hextall insists his prospects acquire before they crack the NHL lineup.
“In a perfect world, would he be here? Probably not,” Hextall told reporters after Gostisbehere was recalled on Nov. 14. “But it’s not a perfect world.”
That comment from Hextall, along with several others suggesting that Gostisbehere is not quite ready for the NHL, and that his appearance is due more to Streit's injury that forced the GM’s hand, creates a dilemma for the big club. Especially since Gostisbehere has stepped into Philadelphia’s lineup and shown speed, quickness and puck-moving ability that’s sorely been lacking on a team that is badly in need of a competent defenseman.
The dilemma is this: The Flyers fancy themselves a playoff team, but probably not a Stanley Cup contender. Early in the season, their offense has languished near the bottom of the league, and a few too many of their defensemen have resembled parking cones. For the Flyers to reach the postseason, they might need Gostisbehere to stick around. From a developmental standpoint, where prematurely giving a player full-time NHL duty has been known to a ruin a prospect or two (see fellow Philly defenseman Luke Schenn) it would probably be in the team’s long-term best interests to return him to Lehigh Valley.
“They just told me I’m here to play,” Gostisbehere says. “But of course, nobody would ever want to leave this place. This is the NHL.”
That’s the thing. Who in their right might would want to give up the NHL and the lifestyle that accompanies it, even if it would be good for them to do so?
That's not to say that Hextall is giving Gostisbehere a small taste of NHL life to motivate him that much more to fight his way back up if he is returned to the Phantoms.
But that would be an awfully clever plan. Wouldn’t it?