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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Travis Sanheim's huge season brings him up to No. 4

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Following a breakout season the Western Hockey League, Travis Sanheim has established himself as one of hockey's elite blueline prospects. When will he make his Flyers debut?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a year ago, Travis Sanheim was barely on the radar of even the most knowledgeable Philadelphia Flyers fans. The team was expected to take a forward in the 2014 first round, and Sanheim was a defenseman still trying to carve out a spot for himself among the draft's top prospects.

What a difference fourteen months can make. Now, not only is Sanheim familiar to fans, he is one of the franchise's best hopes for a quick turnaround in the coming years. Along with Ivan Provorov, Sanheim gives the Flyers their best chance for a homegrown, first pair blueline talent since Joni Pitkanen was taken with the fourth overall pick back in 2002.

Travis Sanheim

Position: Defenseman
Birthdate: March 29, 1996 (19)
Acquired Via: 2014 NHL Draft - Round 1, Pick 17
2014-15 Team/League: Calgary Hitmen - 15 G, 50 A in 67 GP
Nationality: Canadian (Elkhorn, MB)
Size: 6'4", 198
Contract Status: Signed on entry-level contract through 2018 (slide-rule potential through 2019)
Ranking in August 2014 25 Under 25: 10

It's not quite fair to call the Philadelphia Flyers' choice of Travis Sanheim with the 17th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft a reach. After all, multiple scouting organizations and insiders pegged Sanheim as a first round talent, and some (most notably Craig Button) absolutely loved the young blueliner's skillset.

But there were some justified concerns. For starters, Sanheim's draft year production (29 points in 67 games) was more befitting a stay-at-home porch clearer or a long-term project than a future offensive dynamo, even though the most complimentary scouting reports raved of his raw talent. His rise up the draft rankings was primarily credited to a stellar Under-18 tournament performance for Team Canada at the close of the season, which was a fairly small sample.

But as details of his 2013-14 season emerged, excitement grew surrounding the pick. Sanheim had not merely ridden a strong international performance into the first round - it was his standout second half with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL that truly caught the eyes of scouts.

Given a limited role in the season's first half, Sanheim's play progressively improved and his minutes increased accordingly. He scored 26 points in his final 46 games, a pace far more acceptable for a top defense prospect. His standout effort for Team Canada wasn't a small sample sized-induced fluke - it was an exclamation point on a quickly-improving resume.

After being drafted, Sanheim impressed immediately at training camp last September. Despite an extremely slight frame, the Flyers' first round pick turned heads in practice and most notably in his first preseason game with the big club.

He may have looked a bit out of place physically, but with the puck on his stick, Sanheim fit in perfectly. His preternatural calm when initiating breakouts and retrieving pucks in the defensive zone helped to convince any remaining doubters in Philadelphia that the Flyers had a real prospect on their hands.

Then, Sanheim returned to the WHL and did his best to convince the rest of the hockey world as well.

On the strength of his strong finish to the 2013-14 season, Sanheim was given a prominent role on the Calgary defense to start the year. And he didn't just pick up where he left off. Instead, Sanheim took the proverbial leap, becoming one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the entire CHL.

Player League PPG Age
Anthony DeAngelo OHL 1.62 18
Chris Bigras OHL 1.15 19
Shea Theodore WHL 1.12 19
Jeremie Fraser QMJHL 1.10 20
Mitch Vande Sompel OHL 1.09 17
Trevor Murphy OHL 1.07 19
Madison Bowey WHL 1.03 19
Joe Hicketts WHL 1.03 18
Ivan Provorov WHL 1.02 17
Travis Sanheim WHL 0.97 18
Rasmus Andersson OHL 0.96 17
Jeremy Roy QMJHL 0.93 17
Nikolas Brouillard QMJHL 0.93 19
Darnell Nurse OHL 0.92 19
Jason Fram WHL 0.89 19

(All numbers sourced from CHL Stats)

In terms of points per game, Sanheim finished tenth among all defensemen in the top Canadian junior hockey leagues (OHL, QMJHL, WHL). Out of blueliners in the 2014 draft year, only fellow first round pick Anthony DeAngelo and Joe Hicketts surpassed the Flyers prospect, and neither player has the size/skill package of Sanheim. He also left fellow 2014 CHL blueline prospects Haydn Fleury (7th overall, 0.44 PPG) and Roland McKeown (2nd round, 0.49 PPG) in the dust.

The tape shows that Sanheim's statistics were well-earned. A plus skater, Sanheim is particularly comfortable on the offensive rush, using those long strides to eat up space and put immediate pressure on opposing defenders. He's even more dangerous on the power play, where his trademark calm with the puck helps him retain possession even under pressure, giving him more time to unleash his wicked wrist shot. The combination of slick stickhandling and a plus shot also makes him a nightmare to contain during extended even strength cycles.

Just a brief look at Sanheim's highlights will have you sold on his skillset with the puck. But as is characteristic of most point-producing defensemen, the big question from scouts is whether Sanheim's defensive game matches the flashy offense.

Reports are more mixed on the defensive side, but are still mostly positive. Sanheim clearly bulked up throughout the 2014-15 season, and arrived at Flyers development camp in July a far stronger player than the one who returned to Calgary last September. The increased strength was obvious in puck battle drills, as Sanheim showed an increased willingness to fight for leverage in the corners, rather than leaning on his pokechecking.

He has received some criticism for his transition defense, specifically changing direction from forward to backwards skating. Combine that with a bit of a risk-taking mentality, and Sanheim can be the cause of odd man rushes against. It's fair to say that right now he projects as a high-event player (lots of shot attempts for and against).

But Sanheim will also showcase flashes of pure two-way brilliance. Take this highlight, for example (starts at 0:34). Sanheim defends the rush beautifully, pokechecking the puck away from his man and then immediately sending his temmate on a rush back up the ice. Not done yet, Sanheim joins the rush as well and finishes the play with a subtle forehand-to-backhand deke goal.

More plays like this, and Sanheim will keep garnering those Ryan McDonagh comparisons that have Flyers fans so excited.

After his breakout WHL season, Travis Sanheim will enter Flyers training camp full of deserved confidence, and he'll surely be given a legitimate chance to make the big club. But the most likely outcome is that Sanheim returns to Calgary for a third season in juniors. His game still could use additional polish, and while his core strength has improved, it's an open question whether he would survive a full season in the NHL.

Then there's the numbers game. Not only do the Flyers have a full defense already under contract, they have four other highly-touted prospects looking to push their way into Philadelphia. Chances are high that the older, more physically developed Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg are closer than Sanheim to breaking camp on the Flyers' roster.

But that doesn't mean Sanheim will make the decision easy for the front office and coaching staff. After all, Morin came very close to making the team last September, and Sanheim is a more polished package entering his age-19 season than Morin was.

Still, with Ron Hextall preaching patience when it comes to prospects, the smart money would be on Sanheim spending one more year in juniors. It would give him one more year to fine tune his game and also the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors this winter, as he is an early favorite to make the squad.

Another standout performance on the world's stage, and Travis Sanheim won't just be impressing scouts. He'll be making a case to his future employer.

How we voted for Travis Sanheim:

Al Allison Andrew Charlie Collin Kelly Kevin Kurt Mary Meseret Ryan Travis
4 5 4 4 5 8 4 2 6 4 4 7

Who we voted for at No. 4:

Al Allison Andrew Charlie Collin Kelly Kevin Kurt Mary Meseret Ryan Travis
Travis Sanheim Ivan Provorov Travis Sanheim Travis Sanheim Ivan Provorov Scott Laughton Travis Sanheim Ivan Provorov Ivan Provorov Travis Sanheim Travis Sanheim Ivan Provorov