Saturday, July 12, 2014

Flyers' decision makers must let Gostisbehere be his own man

The Philadelphia Flyers' 2014 development camp is just underway, and perhaps their most promising defensive prospect, Union College product and national champion Shayne Gostisbehere, has to face some stiff competition -- not from his fellow blueline hopefuls, but from two players who haven't laced up the skates in almost a decade and a half. 
 
"I coached Paul Coffey with the Flyers and Al Iafrate when I was coaching the Washington Capitals. Those guys played like Shayne does," said Phantoms head coach Terry Murray to NJ.com on Friday.

What is it about the hype machine that feels like an unseen hand is constantly cranking it up around the 21-year-old native of South Florida?

"Coffey and Iafrate were offensive players who played on the edge all the time," Murray explained to Randy Miller. "They were up on the attack in the offensive zone and they had incredible speed to be able to track back literally like a forward to defend and pressure the puck carrier.

That's being charitable to both. Read between the lines and Murray's really saying both played too much like wingers, and thank God they had the speed to catch up to their own mistakes. It's also missing the tell-tale attributes of both players who made an impact at the position through the 80's and early 90's.

Coffey, who racked up an incredible 1,531 points over 20 NHL seasons, had a fluid stride, great acceleration and hands that matched any of his fellow forwards, but unfortunately played about as much actual defense as many forwards during that high-scoring era.

Iafrate, who fended off some questions about his dedication to fitness early in his career for the Leafs, became a prototypical backliner with a cannon shot and devastating hits for the Capitals until issues with his knee joints derailed his career. Oh yeah, there was also the lingering suspicion that performance-enhancing substances were used to aid his process, though nothing has ever been proven.

Thankfully, Gostisbehere has a former Flyers defenseman in his corner, coming to his aid with an assessment a little more grounded and on point.

“He's not a big guy, but he can really move,” Flyers director of player development Kjell Samuelsson said. “You see a lot of defensemen who can skate the puck in, but when they hit the red line they don’t have a creative mind, so they dump it in. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when Shayne hits the red line, he wants to create."

That's good. Because Gostisbehere needs some internally level-headed direction if he is to succeed with the franchise. Is it too much to ask to let the kid be, let him develop at the pace desired by the front office without the requisite comparisons? It's a wonder what a quiet mind can accomplish when focused on the task at hand.

If Murray's salvo wasn't enough, Gostisbehere's college coach Rick Bennett compared him to former teammate Brian Leetch, while the nascent pro himself is thinking about emulating one of the greatest players in NHL history in Bobby Orr. All of this before "Ghost" has played five games in the American Hockey League. Enough already.

Philly hasn't had a d-man who could carry the puck and then keep the flow of play going since Matt Carle departed under unfortunate circumstances two Summers ago. For the rearguards that need revamping, especially in light of Kimmo Timonen's retirement next year, a puck mover who has an idea of what to do inside the offensive zone is a desperate need.

Gostisbehere needs to find out what he can do and how his size, speed and skill fits into the Flyers' program. It will do him no good to take every drill, every scrimmage, every shift under the cloud of predecessors his coaches and other concerned parties played with or coached. It will do him even less of a service if he's tangled up in his own mind with turning into the eternal No. 4. 

"I think Shayne needs to play in the American League next season,” Murray said further along in the article. “I think he needs to get a season of pro hockey under his belt and get a real good understanding of what it’s all about."

You can reasonably assume that trigger fingers, particularly team Prez Paul Holmgren and perhaps head coach Craig Berube, might become very itchy if Ghost manages to blossom right away and tears it up in Allentown through Christmas. But if there's one voice that can still the fugue, it's the Phantoms head coach, who has logged almost 30 years as a coach in the AHL and NHL. 

"He played two games for us and showed big stuff...incredible speed, quickness and puck-handling. He’s got an attack. He shoots the puck. I think he’s a very special player. I want to keep pushing the big stuff, too," stated Murray, who spent two stints in Orange and Black as a spare defenseman. "But like all players, he’s going to have to work on the other part of the game, whenever you don’t have the puck and learning how to defend."

In the end, that's what the club should be pushing Gostisbehere to do, be and learn. Forget about Orr, Coffey, Leetch and Iafrate. From the drop of the puck in early October, it should be about Gostisbehere and how he can be the player of the Flyers' future, and not anyone else's past.
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