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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Travis Sanheim gets more efficient offensively as he prepares to turn pro

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In his final season at the junior hockey level, Travis Sanheim led all WHL defensemen in points per game, and now will look to retain his elite offensive production as he turns professional.

Derek Leung/Getty Images

In June 2014, prior to the NHL Draft, Travis Sanheim was mostly unproven potential. Sure, he had closed out his junior season strong, and then delivered a standout performance in the under-18 World Championships. But he was still a rail-thin 18-year old who posted just 29 points in 62 games during his draft year, underwhelming raw production for a defenseman coveted for supposedly possessing elite offensive upside.

Ron Hextall and the Flyers took a chance on that unproven potential, and within months, Sanheim rewarded their trust with a breakout season.

Since then, the 20-year old prospect has established himself as one of the best defensive prospects in hockey, scoring at nearly a point per game rate in his draft +1 season, and rocketing past that threshold in his final junior season. Next up for Sanheim comes the transition to the professional game.

No. 5: Travis Sanheim

Position: D
Age: 20 (3/29/1996)
2015-16 League/Team/Statistics: Calgary (WHL) - 15 G, 53 A in 52 GP
Nationality: Canadian (Elkhorn, MB)
Acquired Via: 2014 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 17

Sanheim's breakout season in 2014-15 put him on the map when it came to NHL prospects who fit the bill as offensive-defensemen with big time upside. Not only was the production there, Sanheim's combination of size and elite skating ability was tantalizing. But he didn't last long at Philadelphia Flyers' training camp last year despite the jump in production. Instead, Ron Hextall quickly returned Sanheim to the Calgary Hitmen for one more season at the WHL level.

Given the opportunity to improve upon his Draft +1 season, Sanheim did just that, at least offensively. His point per game rate jumped from 0.97 to 1.31, leading all WHL defensemen (including fellow Flyers prospect Ivan Provorov). From a point production standpoint, Sanheim clearly mastered the junior hockey level.

The defensive side is another story. While first-hand observers noted that Sanheim looked more comfortable this past season when defending the rush and containing opponents' cycles, he remains inconsistent in these areas. The Canadian coaching staff during the World Junior Championships last December may have been incompetent, but the reason why they chose to limit Sanheim's minutes in the tournament was almost certainly due to defensive concerns, and he did make a few visible errors in that area while playing for Team Canada. Despite his great speed, his rush coverage was spotty in particular.

Sanheim's reputation of being great offensively but a mixed bag without the puck might be overblown, but there's still truth to the narrative. After all, while Ivan Provorov is viewed as having a legitimate shot to make the Flyers during this camp, Sanheim is rarely discussed, despite his blue-chip prospect status. Most expect him to quickly be sent down to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, even though Sanheim is one year older than Provorov and posted more impressive offensive rate statistics last year. The Flyers must view Provorov's defensive game as significantly above that of Sanheim right now, since Sanheim has the edge in offensive production and experience.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the 20-year old Sanheim can't improve. His offensive game should translate to the AHL level, as his three points in four games during a brief stint in Lehigh Valley late last season hinted. The Phantoms' coaching staff will mostly focus on fine tuning the other elements of his skillset, just as they worked to do with Shayne Gostisbehere previously.

Like Gostisbehere, Sanheim does not need to become a "shutdown" defenseman to be a positive contributor at the NHL level. He just needs to be competent. If he can get to that point, Sanheim's vision, passing ability, and elite puck handling talents should then be more than enough to make him a play-driver at 5v5, even at the top levels of hockey.

Along with Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Sanheim will be expected to carve out a major role on a Phantoms club that was stacked by Ron Hextall in the offseason with high-end free agents. Hextall clearly wants the team in Lehigh Valley to have a winning atmosphere, especially now that key prospects like Sanheim have joined the club. But Sanheim will be expected to drive that improvement as well, as he'll likely take a big role on the power play and receive top-four minutes on the blueline at even strength.

So when will Sanheim finally get his shot with the Flyers? A strong start to the season will have outside observers calling him the next Gostisbehere and advocating an immediate call-up, but my guess is that Hextall will want Sanheim to learn under Scott Gordon and the coaching staff in Lehigh Valley for the majority of this season, at least. It's possible that injuries to offensive weapons on the blue line like Gostisbehere, Mark Streit or Michael Del Zotto could accelerate Sanheim's timeline, but that seems doubtful considering Hextall's patient approach.

In the end, it will be Sanheim's progression on the defensive side that decides when he gets the call. Everyone expects him to be a weapon with the puck immediately, but his play without it will determine when Travis Sanheim takes the next step in his career.

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How we voted for Travis Sanheim :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
8 7 5 6 4 4 5 5 5 5

How we voted at No. 5 :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
Scott Laughton Scott Laughton Travis Sanheim Travis Konecny Travis Konecny Travis Konecny Travis Sanheim Travis Sanheim Travis Sanheim Travis Sanheim

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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25, Summer 2016: