Earlier this season, we posited that Union junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere might be the best player in the country. With such lofty praise, it's clear that Gostisbehere is a player deserves further examination. What makes Gostisbehere one of the nation's best? I took a closer examination at one of his games this season to try and give some insight into what this speedy defenseman brings to the table, and what his future might be at the next level.
I followed Gostisbehere during Union's 4-1 victory over at-the-time #1 St. Cloud State in St. Cloud back in mid-December and here is what I saw.
A couple things to keep in mind before we get into this. First, Union was playing the second game of a three games in four days stretch, which included a long flight early on their only off day, which can be tough, even by professional travel standards, let alone what you'd normally see at the NCAA level. Also, St. Cloud's arena has Olympic-sized ice(200x100) rather than the normal pro-size(200x85). That's not a huge deal, but can prevent some interesting challenges for defensemen, and it's worth keeping in mind when discussing how Gostisbehere moves around the ice.
Perhaps in part due to their tough stretch of schedule, Union really tried to rotate through all six defensemen, and Gostisbehere's ice time ended up in a pretty normal range. He had 18 shifts at even strength, four on the power play, and three shorthanded. I'd estimate that out to about 20 minutes of ice time, give or take a little bit. Gostisbehere anchored Union's second power play unit, and was a regular on the penalty kill.
There's no doubt that Gostisbehere is an offensive-minded defenseman. He averages 4.78 shots on goal per game, which is 5th best overall in the entire country, and tops among defensemen. The next highest defenseman on the list, St. Cloud's Andrew Prochno, only averages 3.50 shots on goal per game. Against St. Cloud on Friday, Gostisbehere was right about at his average, being credited with five shots on goal.
Gostisbehere's skating lived up to all the praise I had heard about it coming into the game. He's got good straight-line speed, and moves laterally well. But what really separates his skating from others is his ability to accelerate in the first couple of steps. Because he has that ability, Gostisbehere uses pass fakes and shot fakes more effectively than any player I've seen in college hockey. Most of his opportunities in the offensive zone came as a result of faking a slap shot at the point to freeze his defender, then using his acceleration to wheel around that player for a better opportunity.
He was able to use that ability in the neutral zone as well Twice, Gostisbehere made a nice fake pass to a teammate, freezing the opposing defense at the blue line, and allowing him to gain zone entry, and get off one of his shots on goal. He's definitely not a player that is going to chip and chase when bringing the puck into the zone. A couple times he tried to go 1-on-4 at the opposing blue line to skate the puck into the zone and ended up losing possession of the puck both times. He's really not much of a dangler with the puck.
Aside from the shot fakes, he showed some other nice abilities that might make him effective running the power play at the next level. With his lateral movement, he has no difficulty at all walking the blue line with the puck on the man advantage. He also made a nice, heady play, intentionally firing a puck wide off the back boards, hoping for it to bounce in front of the net, rather than trying to force a puck through a couple defenders. The play got broken up when the puck took a terrible hop off the boards, but it showed an ability to use a play that is becoming more common in the NHL.
There was almost as much good on the defensive side of the puck as there was on the offensive side of the puck. Gostisbehere's quickness and agility allows him to play very aggressively, especially at his own blue line. He's great at stepping up at the last second and disrupting zone entry on rushes, or reading a play and intercepting neutral zone passes.
Gostisbehere also did some impressive work on the penalty kill. Because he's so quick, he covers way more ice than the average player. This allows him to pressure the opposition more when they have the puck on the perimeter, while still being quick enough to get back into position in front of the net if the puck gets reversed. When the puck is at the point on the power play, Gostisbehere is always looking for an opportunity to jump out and intercept a pass on the perimeter.
That speed comes at a bit of a cost though. He's not a very big defenseman, listed at 5'11" 170 lbs by the school. He doesn't play much of a physical game. He is surprisingly strong on his stick though for a player of his size. He was able to win a few board battles by digging the puck out of traffic, and he didn't show any panic in handling a heavy forecheck.
But once again, Gostisbehere's skating is his best weapon against any physical edge his opponents might have. His signature play came in the third period, with Union up by two goals and St. Cloud pressing. Gostisbehere had the puck just inside his own blue line and was the last man back, facing a heavy two-man forecheck by St. Cloud. Gostisbehere was able to spin away from one forechecker, then stop on a dime to elude the second forechecker, before starting up again and splitting the two defenders to break the puck out of the zone, which eventually led to a fourth, back-breaking goal for Union.
Will Gostisbehere's talent translate to the professional level? I think so. His skating ability is seriously special. He's probably not ever going to be a 25-30-minute a night guy; his lack of size and extreme aggressiveness on the defensive end may get exposed a little bit more at a higher level. But he definitely projects well as a second pairing defenseman that moves the puck well and can provide some offense on the power play. Gostisbehere is only a junior this year, but Philadelphia will likely make a big push to sign him this offseason, and Gostisbehere is likely ready for that next step. From there, he would likely need a year in the AHL to adjust to pro hockey before he was ready to make a serious impact at the NHL level.
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