Monday, December 16, 2013

Ghost and the selfishness of need

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Look out, because I'm the latest to take off and leap onto the Ghost Train. Except I'm hanging on long enough to reach the lead car looking for the hand brake.

The ground swell to pump up Union College junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere as an elite college player, crossed with the Philadelphia Flyers' desperate need for a blueliner with puck-moving skills, is threatening to get silly.

Simply put, when a player commits to a Division I program, the expectation is that he is prepared to fulfill the terms of that scholarship and play all four seasons, barring unforeseen circumstances. I firmly believe any NHL team which holds a college player's rights has no reason to expect that player to leave the program early, and should hold no power to coerce a player to leave under the guise of molding that player to the club's philosophy. I also believe that, once a player commits to a program, he or she shouldn't bail for greener pastures in the middle of his first season or any season for that matter unless it's a can't-miss proposition for reaching the NHL within a year.

Therefore, whatever you might think of Gostisbehere's abilities at the moment viewed through the prism of the glowing praise he's received recently, he still presumably has a season-and-a-half remaining in Schenectady before he may be subject to the unique scrutiny of the Philadelphia Flyers front office and the laser-like perception of its fan base.

From April of 2009: 

“We are pleased to have James in the fold and look forward to monitoring his development more closely,” said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren upon announcing James van Riemsdyk was signed to an entry-level deal. “It was a difficult decision for James to leave school, but we both believed that it was in his best interest to do so. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the University of New Hampshire, and in particular, Coach Dick Umile and his staff for not only their understanding but their dedicated work with James over the last two seasons.”

(Ed note: italics used for emphasis mine)

Reading closely, it doesn't paint the organization as either patient or willing to accept that the Division I college game can be treated in the same way Canadian juniors is, regarding prospect development. The presumption appears that an NHL club can exert more influence and monitor a draftee better in Kitchener or Regina rather than say, Durham or Denver. But it's the Flyers, who have been late to the D-I party and are just catching up, so take it with a grain of salt.

UNH is an offensively-oriented program under Umile. It has been as long as he's been head coach. That's been a necessity ever since the Wildcats moved into the Whittemore Center -- an Olympic-sized rink (200x100) whose dimensions favor teams which can skate and transition well, rather than ones which can bump and grind in the corners on a regulation-size (200x85) sheet. That is in direct contradiction with the spirit of the Orange and Black and what the current regime demands of its skaters.

JVR put up 34 points in 31 games during his freshman campaign, then posted 40 points in 36 games in his sophomore course before the Flyers pushed for advancement, sending out mild complaints at how Umile handled his development. He spent all of seven games in the AHL with the Phantoms before being deemed ready for prime time at the ripe old age of 20. Changes were demanded of the Jersey native's game, from a skater and passer to one who makes his living at the edge of the crease -- something which he was ill suited in Philadelphia but found a balance in Toronto.

In that case Holmgren certainly felt more pressure to present the second-overall selection in the 2007 draft as NHL ready than feeling any particular displeasure with the college game, but the emerging situation with Gostisbehere -- only a third-round pick -- is in danger of going down the same path.

With 16 points (6G, 10A) in 18 games thus far for the Dutchmen, it's not hard to believe, if that pace is maintained, that Holmgren will push for the Florida native to leave the comfort of upstate New York for the professional ranks. Game by game, the glaring gaps in speed, skill, positioning and savvy from the expensive veterans grow, and the apparent solution is only five hours away by car. It's also just 45 miles from Glens Falls to Schenectady, so how hard could it be to coax the young man to the Phantoms?

The future is always now, or at minimum, four months from now. For those who are wondering "when will then be now?" Soon. We can only hope it's not too soon.

Leaving a college program early is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get. For every Charlie Coyle and Alex Chiasson, there's a Stephane Da Costa and J.T. Brown. Holmgren is not a gambling man on this level, but he certainly feels the strong pull of need due to a defense which is simultaneously too old and well paid for their performance and young but unproven.

Anthony Stolarz left Nebraska-Omaha with the Flyers' "blessing," for the London Knights, but what if Ghost decides to stick around and haunt Achilles Rink for his senior season? Will the sweet turn to sour?

Complicating matters further is the following excerpt from a mid-November interview from Penn State's Daily Collegian featuring Ken Schott, who covers Union hockey for the Daily Gazette:

"I would say he is one of the best players in the country. Gostisbehere certainly is the best defenseman in the country. He carries the puck with confidence. He isn't overhandling the puck as he had the past two years, which led to turnovers. And, for the most part, he has stayed away from taking the bad penalty ... I think Gostisbehere could make the jump to at least the AHL next season, if he chooses to forego his senior season. He does need the bulk up a little."

The up-sell here is obvious. Nonetheless, the future of the Flyers defense is precarious and important enough, and Gostisbehere enough of a treasured commodity, that the investment should be allowed to fully mature.

That means Holmgren will have to sit on his hands and bite his tongue as Union furthers his development as a player and person. It also means Gostisbehere will have to put up a strong front if any attempts at coercion are made. Keeping Gostisbehere anchored as the top d-man for the Dutchmen for his senior season can only further ensure the predictions can come true.

Abstract terms like "belong" and "deserve" have nothing to do with anything concrete, particularly if you're going to pin future hopes and dreams for a revamped back line on a single player. But if the praise is coming from all the right places, of course the Flyers will shelve the doubt and bank on the up side. That's the kind of thinking that has enraptured Ed Snider and entangled Holmgren in several messes during his Philly tenure. No reason for Gostisbehere to be caught in that web just yet.

Still, the college game is about the player and the person, not immediate prospects for NHL impact. The Flyers' front office must come to terms with that difference. Holmgren must realize that it's not about his team right now or next year. It's about Gostisbehere, and his opportunity to complete his commitment to his team and being given the chance to earn accolades without the noise of expectation. 

The 20-year-old's next appearance in Philadelphia should be this April, but as the Dutchmen's best player in the Frozen Four and not as a member of the organization.

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