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November 17, 2016

Hakstol benching of 'Ghost' won't hurt rising defenseman, Flyers

Strange things were afoot at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday morning.

Before the Flyers took the ice for their morning skate, and hours before they’d play host to the Winnipeg Jets, word began to circulate that second-year defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere had been announced as the Philadelphia Pro Athlete of the Year by the folks at the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association.

And then about an hour later, Gostisbehere was announced as a healthy scratch for Thursday night’s game. The man voted the best pro athlete in the city in 2016 was healthy, willing and able… but was being taken out of his team’s lineup

“It’s a part of growth and development, and a part of our group in terms of accountability in our play overall,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol explained to the perplexed members of the team’s press corps. “You can’t make too much out of it. It’s not a small thing to have Shayne out of our lineup, but I think it’s a good thing for him, his growth and development and a few things we’re asking him to concentrate on.”

The Flyers, who have failed to get any real rhythm going in the season’s first month, winning back-to-back games just twice and losers of four of their last five games (three of them by just one goal), decided they’d be better off against the Winnipeg Jets with (arguably) their most talented player from last season, a rising 23-year-old defenseman, watching the game from the sidelines. As you’d expect, this roster decision was not received well by the people of Twitter dot com.

We won’t pick on anyone by posting their tweets here, just trust us here. They were not happy. And perhaps they had good reason to be displeased, particularly if they purchased a ticket to the game in part to see the kid they call ‘Ghost’ ...only to show up later in the night to see an apparition of him on the bench at Wells Fargo Center.

Ghost watched the game from the press box. The season did not end. In fact, the Flyers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening period and held on for a 5-2 victory over the Jets.

"Honestly it doesn't matter what your name is, you have to perform," Flyers goalie Steve Mason said after the victory. "Hak makes the decisions here as to who is in the lineup. I don't think Ghost is feeling sorry for himself and no one is going to be feeling sorry for him. ... Ghost is obviously an important player on the team, but everyone has to perform. There are no free rides, so to speak, here."

As long as Gostisbehere is back in the lineup on Saturday afternoon against Tampa, this storyline will be forgotten quicker than the Phillies career of left-hander Matt Harrison.

Yes, when you send the Phillies writer to a hockey game, you run the risk of getting a Matt Harrison reference into the first third of your story. But perhaps it takes an outsider to provide some levity to the Gostisbehere situation.

Apologies in advance for the upcoming comparisons between two completely different sports – which I always find cringe-worthy, comparing sports, and I’d really like to try to avoid here – but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway. So feel free to stop reading and fire those #StickToBaseball tweets and emails my way.

If you’re still with us … sure taking a talented, healthy player out of uniform in hockey is rare. Healthy scratches are generally reserved for the John Mayberry Juniors and Michael Martinezes of the hockey roster.

But, as Hakstol said, this wasn’t necessarily just about Gostisbehere. The second-year coach is attempting to get his team out of its early-season funk and, on “Tough Guy” night at the Wells Fargo Center (wasn’t it always Tough Guy night when they played at the Spectrum?) perhaps Hakstol was supplying tough love to a young player … and getting a much-needed rise out of the rest of his sluggish team, too.

It's easier to sit a player with all of 83 NHL games to his name, and use words like "growth" and "development" than it is to tell Claude Giroux or Jakub Voracek they're not playing. The former you can at least rationalize; the latter could lose a locker room.

Five months ago, the Phillies were going nowhere fast after dropping a 14-10 loss to the Twins at Target Field. It was their eighth straight loss and their 12th in their last 13 games.

The next day Pete Mackanin benched talented young second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Hernandez sat out the next game, too, and as Mackanin explained it two months later, received some tough love from bench coach Larry Bowa. When Hernandez returned from his two-game benching (the equivalent of sitting out one game in hockey), he did it with a four-hit game and he would go on to be one of the most productive second baseman in baseball, hitting .327 with a Trout-ian .421 OBP over his final 87 games of the season.

About six weeks later, Mackanin benched another of his two best offensive players.

Odubel Herrera, who was the team’s only All-Star representative just three weeks earlier, was held out of the Phillies lineup three times in a four-game stretch in the first week of August. Herrera was hitting .200 in his previous 21 games and reverting back to old, bad plate discipline habits … oh and the Phillies had come out of the All-Star break with 11 losses in 16 games.

Herrera was back in the regular lineup before the end of the week and went on to hit .299 with a .354 OBP in his final 48 games. The brief midsummer break didn’t break the talented 24-year-old lineup sparkplug.

Regardless of the result from Thursday night’s game at the Wells Fargo Center, Gostisbehere’s one-game healthy scratch shouldn’t scuff up the popular defenseman’s development. It could actually help it.

“It hits home for sure,” Gostisbehere told reporters following the team’s morning skate Thursday. “It makes you work that much harder.”

Surely Gostisbehere was putting on a good face as young players are wont to do … in any sport. But when his team goes on to win later that night, he can rest easily with his coach’s decision and understand his talent will get him back on the ice in the very near future.

With the exception of football, where the 16-game schedule leaves little room for motivational roster manipulations from management or the coaching staff, what Hakstol did on Thursday wasn’t really much different than what Mackanin did this summer, or what a lot of coaches and managers do all the time.

On the surface, it might not sound like it’d make too much sense to bench one of your most productive players for the duration of a game. You don’t need to do a deep dive into analytics to understand your team’s chances of winning decrease (particularly when you’re swapping in an Andrew MacDonald as a replacement).

But, through the course of a grueling sixth-month schedule, coaches and managers must have a clear view of the bigger picture beyond that night’s game, of what the team has accomplished thus far and where they could be headed, too.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21