Union's Gostisbehere could be Flyers' answer on D

Posted: April 11, 2014

If any of those Flyers fans forever yearning for a multiskilled defenseman happened to see the brief sequence from Union College's East Regional final victory last month, it must have looked like an answered prayer.

With his Dutchmen leading Providence, 1-0, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers' third pick in the 2012 draft, held the puck alongside his net. Patiently surveying the ice, he rocked slowly from side to side until spotting an open teammate more than half a rink away. The pass he rocketed through a narrow tunnel of players hit the onrushing forward's stick in stride.

The resulting shot was blocked, and Providence brought the puck back down the ice. As Union goalie Colin Stevens sprawled to make a save, the junior defenseman dove toward his open net.

There, on his knees and with a pack of Friars flailing away like angry woodchoppers, he stopped a rapid flurry of shots with his chest, his leg, his gloved hand.

"Last night I said Shayne wasn't only their best defenseman, he was their best forward," Providence coach Nate Leaman said after Union earned a trip to Philadelphia for this week's Frozen Four. "Tonight he was their best goalie, too. He's just a big-time player. I think people are going to be talking about that kid for a long time."

Thursday, when Union takes on Boston College in a Frozen Four semifinal at 5 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphians will get their first extended look at the 20-year-old who could be the defenseman of their dreams.

"He's on the right path," Chris Pryor, the Flyers director of scouting, said earlier about the youngster Rensselaer Polytechnic coach Seth Appert called "the best player in the country."

With a year of eligibility remaining, Gostisbehere hasn't yet indicated whether he'll return to the team he helped lift to the nation's No. 1 ranking this season.

"Right now my focus is on this team and helping us win [at the Frozen Four]," he said after Union won the East Regional at Bridgeport, Conn. "Everything else is premature."

Whatever his decision about 2014-15, it's been a remarkable ascent for someone with such unlikely hockey roots.

Gostisbehere is from Florida, a state where future NHL players are as rare as snowblowers.

But with a Montreal-born, hockey-loving grandfather, he was more disposed to the game than most in the Sunshine State. In fact, that grandfather was among the first to purchase Florida Panthers season tickets when the NHL franchise began play the same year Gostisbehere was born, 1993.

He discovered the game while at his older sister's figure-skating lessons and by 10 was adept enough to play for a travel team. When it came time for high school, he couldn't find a top-level hockey program in Florida so he enrolled at a Connecticut prep school, South Kent.

Because of his size - even now he's listed at only 5-foot-11, 170 pounds - and his off-the-beaten-track resumé, Gostisbehere didn't draw much college attention. But Leaman, then Union's coach, and his top assistant, current coach Rick Bennett, saw speed, instinct, and potential.

"I just got a good feeling about the place right away," Gostisbehere said of the tiny Schenectady, N.Y., school. "I'd gone to a small prep school that stressed academics. Union was the same."

In his first year, mentored by a pack of older defensemen that included Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn's brother, Greg, Gostisbehere helped Union reach the Frozen Four for the first time.

"You could see right away Shayne was a kid who had some flash in his game," Bennett said. "It took him a while before it really came out on the ice, but he was so coachable and willing to learn that you knew it was only a matter of time."

In 2013, Gostisbehere helped Team USA win the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Russia.

And in leading Union to a 30-6-4 record in 2013-14 and the No. 1 ranking, he was by most accounts college hockey's top defenseman.

"Shayne is a kid with great natural gifts," said Union senior defenseman Mat Bodie. "And he works so hard that he's also become one of this team's leaders."

Gostisbehere quarterbacks Union's power play; has great vision; a penchant for jaw-dropping, end-to-end rushes; and is a master of the long and accurate pass.

Defensively, despite his size, he's not afraid to mix it up.

"I've always tried to be the kind of defenseman who plays big," he said. "I'm not going to knock anyone into the seats, but I won't shy away either."

And, if at anytime during this Frozen Four the Dutchmen need a goaltender, Bennett, as he saw so vividly in the Providence game, could always turn to his star.

"I actually played goalie in mites," said Gostisbehere. "It was kind of fun."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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