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Coyotes win big in trade for Gostisbehere

On Thursday, the Arizona Coyotes capitalized on the Philadelphia Flyers’ desire to shed salary. Their rewards: Gostisbehere — a productive 28-year-old offensive defenseman — and two draft picks.

NHL: MAR 13 Capitals at Flyers Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You’d be forgiven if the Shayne Gostisbehere trade slipped your mind.

In normal times, the Arizona Coyotes acquiring a 28-year-old defenseman just three seasons removed from a 65-point campaign might stand as one of the most memorable off-season moves made by any NHL team.

This summer has been different, featuring an expansion draft and a hectic trade freeze on top of the league’s usual schedule. Yet, amidst all the chaos, Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong has been highly active in trying to carve out a future for his team.

Here’s a brief rundown of what’s happened in Arizona since Thursday’s deal with the Philadelphia Flyers:

  • Former cornerstones Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland have departed the club;
  • Three overpaid former Vancouver Canucks forwards have arrived in the desert;
  • The Coyotes added Dylan Guenther, Josh Doan, and seven others to their prospect pool.

What a weekend. It’s a wonder Armstrong had any time to eat or sleep while maintaining such a busy schedule.

While the Ekman-Larsson trade and the Guenther pick undoubtedly remain the top news stories surrounding the Coyotes, it’s only fair to look “back” four days and give Armstrong his due credit for finessing the Flyers into gifting his team a quality offensive defenseman.

Last Thursday, Philadelphia elected to trade Gostisbehere — along with a 2022 second-round pick and a seventh-rounder in the same year — to Arizona. In exchange, Philadelphia received ... nothing.

As was also the case in the Andrew Ladd trade with the New York Islanders, the Coyotes contributed “no return” — not even “future considerations” — to this particular deal. Philadelphia’s real reward was the increased financial flexibility created by moving Gostisbehere’s $4.5 million AAV contract.

A day after consummating the Gostisbehere trade, the Flyers turned around and sent Robert Hagg and two high draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for fellow defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

For those keeping score at home: Philadelphia, over the course of approximately 24 hours, shipped out Gostisbehere, Hagg, a first-rounder, two seconds, and a seventh-round pick, all to acquire the final season of Rasmus Ristolainen’s $5.4 million AAV contract.

Ristolainen is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022. And, barring a massive improvement on his part, it’s difficult to imagine a reality where he’ll provide the Flyers with adequate value compared to his salary cap hit before he hits the open market.

The Flyers got their guy.
Visualization by JFresh. Data from Patrick Bacon.

The Coyotes were the beneficiaries of Philadelphia’s desire to shed salary in pursuit of Ristolainen. As part of the deal, Armstrong managed to add two more draft picks to his team’s depleted cupboards.

He also brought in a defenseman with serious upside who — unlike Ristolainen — managed to positively influence his team’s offensive play during the 2020–21 season.

Despite appearing in just 41 of the Flyers’ 56 games (missing time along the way due to a knee injury and a stint on the COVID protocol list), Gostisbehere led all Philadelphia rearguards with nine goals and finished second behind Ivan Provorov with 20 points.

2020–21 represented a substantial improvement for Gostisbehere over his previous campaign and a step towards rediscovering his peak form.

In 2019–20, Gostisbehere battled through a recurring knee injury and spent significant chunks of the season as a healthy scratch. In the 42 games Gostisbehere did play, he scored just 12 points (five goals, seven assists) and averaged a career-low 18:18 of ice-time.

It would’ve been nearly unthinkable for Gostisbehere to be a healthy scratch in 2015–16. As a 22-year-old rookie, Gostisbehere tallied 17 goals and 29 assists, strung together a 15-game point streak, and was named a Calder Trophy finalist. Two seasons later, he finished top-10 in Norris Trophy voting after amassing 65 points.

“I’ve battled through a lot of injuries that have hampered my ability to play the way that I play,” Gostisbehere told Arizona reporters on Friday. “Last year, I think I took the next step in leaving those injuries in the past.

“Individually, I thought I had a really good season,” Gostisbehere added. “It’s something for me to springboard from.”

Gostisbehere spent most of the 2020–21 campaign as the Flyers’ primary defenseman on the power play. He led all Flyers blueliners (and tied for 25th in the NHL) with an average of 2:44 per game on the power play, scoring 11 points with his team up a man.

His rate of 4.81 power play points per 60 minutes also paced Philadelphia’s defense corps and ranked 42nd among NHL defensemen with at least 15 games played.

Evolving-Hockey assessed Gostisbehere’s offensive performance in the 2020–21 season as being worth a total of 8.4 expected goals above replacement (xGAR). Out of that figure, he amassed 4.0 xGAR solely through his performance on the power play.

According to Evolving-Hockey’s xGAR model, only four defensemen in the NHL (Tyson Barrie, Aaron Ekblad, Cale Makar, and Drew Doughty) provided more value on the power play than Gostisbehere in the 2020–21 campaign. Jakob Chychrun ranked 11th leaguewide in the same category.

Gostisbehere’s offensive value isn’t restricted to the power play. Last season, he ranked second among Flyers defensemen (behind only Erik Gustafsson) with 0.81 points per 60 at 5-on-5.

The Flyers controlled 52.34% of the on-ice expected goals during Gostisbehere’s shifts at even-strength; among Gostisbehere’s teammates, only Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, and James van Riemsdyk saw higher volumes of quality shots go Philadelphia’s way while on the ice in 2020–21.

Gostisbehere provided 4.5 offensive expected goals above replacement at even-strength during the 2020–21 season. That figure led all Flyers defensemen and ranked 28th in the NHL at the position. Gostisbehere’s 10.7 total xGAR in 2020–21 — according to Evolving-Hockey — slotted him between Zach Werenski and Samuel Girard for 15th among NHL defenders.

Shayne Gostisbehere: flawed, but useful.
Visualization by JFresh. Data from Patrick Bacon.

Gostisbehere is neither remarkable nor a drag in his own end. He has amassed a slightly positive total defensive xGAR figure in each of the last four seasons, most recently providing 0.3 defensive xGAR in 2020–21 (per Evolving-Hockey).

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers surrendered 1.99 expected goals per 60 minutes in 2020–21 with Gostisbehere on the ice at 5-on-5. Over the entire season (including Gostisbehere’s contributions), the Flyers allowed 2.07 expected goals per 60 at even-strength.

While Philadelphia generally performed better defensively with Gostisbehere on the ice, it’s important to note he faced relatively weak opponents and was deployed as the team’s No. 4 defensemen at even-strength. The average quality of the forwards attacking Gostisbehere on a typical shift ranked at the 11th percentile, according to data from TopDownHockey.

Nevertheless, Gostisbehere’s calling card is his offense, and he’s coming off one of his more impressive scoring seasons. Chychrun, Ekblad, Wyatt Kalynuk, and Darnell Nurse were the only blueliners to average more goals per 60 minutes in all situations than Gostisbehere’s 0.66 last season. His 6.21 shots per 60 ranked 21st among NHL defensemen.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is now in Vancouver. Niklas Hjalmarsson is heading for retirement. Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, and Jordan Oesterle are all pending unrestricted free agents. The Coyotes remain in desperate need of defensemen; Chychrun can’t do it all by himself.

Adding Gostisbehere represented Arizona’s first step towards filling out its group on the back-end for the next two seasons. While his deal may have been too rich for the Flyers, Gostisbehere will only cost the Coyotes a total of $4.25 million in real money over the next two seasons. At the same time, he’ll help a rebuilding team reach the $60.2 million salary cap floor.

Gostisbehere looks like a safe bet to slot in behind Chychrun as the Coyotes’ No. 2 left-handed defenseman. He’ll likely also quarterback the second power play unit. If all goes according to plan, Gostisbehere could top 35 points in a season for the fifth time in his career.

Even if he settles in as a satisfactory Alex Goligoski replacement, it’ll be impossible to look at the Gostisbehere trade as anything but a massive win for the Coyotes.

“No return”? More like “no returns.”