On November 14th, the Philadelphia Flyers' season was on thin ice. Five points out of a playoff spot, its power play -- an area that had been a strength -- sat 26th in the league after 16 games, leaving the group starved for offense. To make matters worse, Mark Streit, the team's top power play point man, had just suffered a long term injury that would leave him sidelined for upwards of six weeks. Rather than replace him with a combination of the offensive also-rans that filled out the team's defensive depth chart, GM Ron Hextall called up a former third round pick in the midst of his first full pro season after missing nearly all of the last year with his own serious injury. That defenseman's name was Shayne Gostisbehere, nicknamed "The Ghost," a Florida native and NCAA champion with Union College who a if eligible a few years earlier likely would have been labeled two small to ever get a shot in the NHL.
But let's back up. Last season under Craig Berube, the Flyers changed their first power play unit into a structured 1-3-1 for the first time, moving Brayden Schenn (and at times others) from the front of the net to a permanent place in the slot. If you watch the Flyers' first unit operate once the puck is in the offensive zone, it's like looking into a Verizon Center mirror. Claude Giroux plays the role of Nicklas Backstrom but as a righty from the left side. Jakub Voracek is the shooter on the right, though his role is less prominent than that of an Alex Ovechkin. He's more of a decoy or a secret weapon, easing his opponents into a false sense of security while the puck remains mostly on the left side of the ice.
The Flyers the last few years have consistently had a good power play, but last year its unit cashed in at a rate of 8.08 goals for per 60 minutes (GF/60) at 5-on-4, its highest rate in recent memory. The incorporation of a full-time "bumper" or slot man freed up not only Giroux for more dangerous passing lanes, but also Wayne Simmonds, the team's designated net front presence, to more easily contribute (more on that later).
This season, though, things didn't start well, and a lot of it was simply poor shooting luck. Voracek in particular couldn't buy a goal, as Streit on the point looked for him constantly. He averaged 2.31 power play shot attempts a game, but they resulted in no goals. But there was also stagnancy and predictability. Nobody particularly wanted to take the final shot except Voracek, who as mentioned was snake-bit as can be.
Fast forward three months and Gostisbehere just completed a 15-game point streak -- the most ever by a rookie defenseman. Voracek is down to 1.67 shot attempts per game, giving him easier coverage and more of an ability to surprise. Incredibly, the team's power play is once again cranking out goals.
Since November 14th, the Flyers are 12th in the league in 5-on-4 GF/60, but a large amount of that is that the second unit provides very little. Unlike with the Capitals, the Flyers' second unit struggles to enter the zone and get setup, doesn't have the right R/L balance and has a hard time keeping pucks off the boards. How do we know that the Gostisbehere-led first unit has been such a success then? Gostisbehere is 13th in the league among the 315 players with at least 50 minutes of 5-on-4 time in terms of on-ice GF/60. Those ahead of him include dynamic players such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jamie Benn and several first-unit St. Louis Blues. The name directly behind him on the list? Alex Ovechkin. Check out a few more of Gostisbehere's metrics in contrast to Streit, and you get a picture of how important the Ghost has been for that team.
Now it's important to recognize that Streit's numbers here are skewed because of the time he has spent with inferior players. Since returning from the injured reserve, the former Islander and Canadien has been the second unit option, and on the second unit, it's doubtful even Gostisbehere would look like a Calder contender. Using Emmanuel Perry's dynamic new website Corsica Hockey (I encourage everybody to donate here), we can split the two point men's performance based on first and second unit activity, using Claude Giroux as a proxy for the first unit.
In minimal minutes Gostisbehere has also struggled with the second unit, and in terms of on-ice shot attempts with the first unit, there isn't much to choose between these two. But that goal gap is notable. How much of that is variance and how much of it is dictated by shot quality? Let's first take a look at the shot and one-timer charts for these two players. I limited Streit's chart to the 16 games for which he primarily suited up with the first unit to open the year (click for a better view).
Even considering that Gostisbehere has played on the first unit for 38 full games compared to 16 for Streit (my tracked data is three games behind for the Flyers), the difference in shot attempts is notable. Gostisbehere has a dangerous shot, and he's far more willing to use it (as he should be). Despite firing away, Gostisbehere's shot gets through unblocked 71 percent of the time, compared to only 67 percent of the time for Streit. And then there's the six 5-on-4 goals that have come off the stick of the Ghost this year (and another off a rebound from his shot) compared to zero for his defensive teammate.
The other noticeable aspect of those charts is the rapport the rookie has with goal-line menace Wayne Simmonds. The triangles represent shots that are tipped in front of the net, and tipped shots on the power play go in about 14 percent of the time, the highest rate in terms of NHL recorded shot types.
Before getting hurt, Streit wasn't shooting all that much, and -- possibly because Simmonds didn't know when to expect shots -- only one of his shots was tipped, and it was by Schenn. Since Gostisbehere took over, Simmonds alone has tipped eight of his point shots, each becoming dangerous opportunities.
Zone Entry Success
As a final comparative notes between these two blueliners, let's take a look at each of their zone entry abilities. First of all, it's important to take note of Gostisbehere's raw skating ability.
Frank Seravalli had an interesting piece on a particular tool in Gostisbehere's arsenal, one that Bob Roberts has pointed to on a number of occasions. It's called the Mohawk (I liked to call it the #GhostShimmy), and you can see it on the latter three gifs above. It involves making one's two skates parallel to one another, thus turning one's hips towards a particular direction while still being able to rapidly accelerate in another. Players see it on entries and expect a drop pass, but instead the rookie blue liner accelerates forward and the backcheckers are left helpless. It is also a move he likes to use while walking the blue line, disguising his intention to shoot and making it look like a pass to Giroux is forthcoming.
So how do Gostisbehere's zone entry numbers stack up to his peer? Surprisingly, not that well.
The Zone Entry numbers here correspond not to the player who physically crosses the line, but the player who makes the play that leads to the entry, usually a primary pass. Since the Flyers -- at least on the first unit -- like to set up fairly quickly, I used both a simple success/fail method but also the formation method I introduced in my Capitals long-read linked earlier. Streit has been a fairly efficient puck handler despite playing much of his time on the second unit, while Gostisbehere hasn't been quite as sharp in that role. Giroux and Voracek have taken much of that responsibility onto themselves with a high number of drop pass players.
Over the last three weeks, a Flyers power play that looked on its way back towards the league's elite began to stumble once again. I took a look at Gostisbehere's shooting to see if I could find what might be responsible for the struggles.
What I found was that on Gostisbehere's first 54 shot attempts in charge of the unit, the net-front trio of Simmonds, Schenn and Matt Read managed 12 tips (mostly the former). Since then, the trio has only managed to tip five of his 49 attempts. I don't think it's a coincidence that the team has been a lowly 22nd in the league with the man advantage in that latter time frame, compared to 6th in the former.
On January 19th I began tracking net front screens, a difficult variable to evaluate, but one with a clear impact on shot success. My definition of a screen is that the goalie has to have his line of sight compromised such that he has to visibly adjust his head to look around the attacking player. Because I don't have that data for the first two segments of the season, I don't know whether Simmonds was getting to the front of the net but simply not tipping Streit's shots early on. I also don't know whether he was screening the goalie more during the successful middle phase, which was behind the high tip frequency.
In the time I've been tracking them, Simmonds (and for a couple Ryan White) have screened the goalie on 20 of Gostisbehere's 48 shot attempts, 10 of those 20 ending up on goal. Considering the number of tips he had early on, I'd suggest that either a) his tip rate during the Flyers' period of success was unsustainably good, b) his tip rate during the Flyers' recent struggles has been unsustainably bad, or c) a combination of the two, which is usually the answer. With special tracking or manually tracked data for more teams, we could be more conclusive in assessing the situation, but for now that will have to do.
Gostisbehere -- from the moment he got to Philadelphia -- was a spark plug on the power play. He has a hard and accurate shot that he has managed to get on net more often and with more quality than his predecessor Streit. Simmonds has also been critical to a power play that relies on creating traffic in front of the opposition goalie and then cashing in any rebounds that might be produced. That said, the Flyers first unit's in-zone strategy -- similarly to the Capitals -- relies on quick puck movement from skilled players in optimal positions, and should be able to regain some of its success for the remainder of the season. Now it's up to them to craft a more consistent zone entry scheme to suit Ghost's abilities and a more structured second unit that utilizes Streit's entry and passing consistency. Figure that out for next season, and maybe this unit challenges the Caps for the power play crown.