The Detroit Red Wings’ hot start can be attributed to several factors, as the team has been lighting up the scoreboard to start the 2023-24 season; and with Halloween coming up, it’s a “Ghost Bear” who has made the power play outright deadly. Shayne Gostisbehere signed a one-year deal with the club this past summer and has helped lead the team to its best start since the 2011-12 season.
The Red Wings have called open season on opposing netminders – with a league-leading 35 goals through eight contests (4.38 per game) – and the 30-year old defenseman is a big reason why, chipping in three markers and six assists. The power play is firing on all cylinders with a 38.7% success rate, trailing only the New Jersey Devils at 42.3%. Gostisbehere, with his booming shot from the blue line, has been a welcomed addition as Detroit has jumped out to a 5-2-1 record, second best in the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings, who have struggled with the man advantage in years past, can thank the ten-year veteran for giving the special teams a much needed boost.
Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde has welcomed the “Ghost Bear” with open arms. “I’ve been impressed with some things, let’s say pleasantly surprised,” Lalonde said. “But again you get a feel for a player being in the league so long. I remember him being a star back in college. I think I’m fairly familiar with him as a player. But until you have him day in day out, you see that he gets around the ice way better than anticipated, defends better than I anticipated. He’s got a little more edge to him. The body of work is showing through.”
A Road Well Traveled
Gostisbehere has always been known for his offensive prowess, but his defensive game has left coaches wanting more. He sports a career minus-58, but those numbers could be an outlier as he has routinely been identified as the scapegoat on some really poor teams throughout his NHL journey – which has included stops in Philadelphia, Arizona, Carolina and now Detroit. Drafted 78th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 Draft, he quickly blossomed into an offensive weapon from the back end. After some brief stints with the Flyers and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, Gostisbehere suffered an ACL tear that sidelined him for the majority of the 2014-15 season. But after surgery and rehab, he came back to start his rookie year on a tear, tallying 46 points in 64 games during the 2015-16 season, finishing second in Calder Trophy voting.
The 2017-18 season saw him post a career-high 65 points while establishing himself as a top offensive threat from the blue line. His big shot from the point and ability to quarterback the power-play made him a fan favorite in the City of Brotherly Love. But the next few seasons saw a significant regression in his offensive numbers as he battled injuries on a struggling Flyers team. Philadelphia ultimately shipped him to the Arizona Coyotes after the 2020-21 season while the team underwent an organizational overhaul. A move to the desert appeared to be just what the doctor ordered as Gostisbehere regained his scoring touch with the Coyotes, tallying 51 points in his first season with the club. But the following year saw him moved to the Hurricanes – a team who desperately needed a puck-moving defenseman to pair with veteran Brent Burnsas Carolina prepped for a potential long playoff run.
While the Canes’ Cup dreams came up just short – losing to the Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final – Gostisbehere headed into the summer of 2023 as an unrestricted free agent. The Hurricanes decided they needed more size on the back end – following the Vegas Golden Knights’ blue print – and opted to sign Dmitri Orlov to a two-year, $15.5 million contract, leaving Gostisbehere up for grabs to teams in need of power play help. Enter Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings.
The Red Wings legend and current general manager wanted to improve the offensive output from a Detroit team who’s returning top-four defensemen averaged just under 26 points the prior season. Detroit with the man-advantage in 2022 was nothing to write home about finishing in the middle of the pack with a 21.1% success rate, but what Detroit lacked was a high-end puck moving defenseman who could play keep away with Moritz Seider on the point. Enter Gostisbehere – see what I did there? Yzerman inked the defenseman on the first day of free agency on a team-friendly one-year deal for an average annual value (AAV) of $4.125 million.
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Through eight games it appears to be a perfect match as the Ghost Bear seems to be a natural fit with the first unit, adding that left handed element to cycle the puck down low. Gostisbehere and Seider look to be the perfect “volley” partners on the blue line with their excellent passing skills. But rest assured, he’s not afraid to let one loose and I can easily say he has the best left-handed shot from the point since the legendary Nick Lidstrom retired. At the same time, rumors of his demise on the defensive front seem to have been greatly exaggerated – yes it’s early – but he’s on the plus side of zero and is playing close to 20 minutes a night while playing a somewhat effective lockdown game. Can he keep up his current point-per-game average for the rest of the season? It’s highly doubtful.
It’s A Long Season
While it’s been a great start to the season, you have to remember that it’s a very small sample size. Teams do battle injuries and scoring droughts so it’s important to keep all these numbers in perspective. On a one-year deal at a reasonable cap hit, Gostisbehere could be a valuable trade chip if the Red Wings decide to sell at the deadline. The team’s pipeline of defenders is one of the best in the league and Yzerman may decide that he’s a short-term stop gap until the prospects arrive. But if I was a betting man I think we are far from seeing that come to fruition. There seems to be a new attitude on this team, one we haven’t seen since they last made the playoffs back in 2016. Gostisbehere may have finally found the right fit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yzerman try to re-sign him before the end of the season, especially if the Wings still look scary good.