clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: Rookie Defensemen

New, comments

As we had expected, two rookie defensemen made the Flyers out of camp. How have things been going in their first NHL seasons?

“They gave me a WHAT grade?”
Kate Frese / SBNation

Earlier today, we took a long look at the 2017-18 seasons that Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere have had. In this space, we’ll do the same for the team’s two rookie defensemen, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim.

(Stats below are from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, corsica.hockey, and hockeyviz.com. Any statistics regarding ranks relative to the NHL are through Sunday’s games.)


Robert Hagg

Overall Numbers: 1 G, 4 A in 42 GP; 18:49 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 45.7% Corsi-For, 49.3% Expected Goals For, 0.54 Points per 60

In short: Hagg’s earned the trust of the Flyers’ coaching staff and has proven his mettle as a good defensive player, but he needs to do much more to show that he’s a well-rounded defenseman at the NHL level.

How so? Yesterday, we discussed the rookie season of Taylor Leier, a fourth-line forward who has produced very little in the way of offense but has performed well enough defensively to be a solid player for the Flyers. In that vein, there are some similarities between Leier’s season and Hagg’s.

Hagg isn’t much of an individual offensive threat, and his play on the puck in the defensive zone has been pedestrian enough that it’s gotten in the way of the team’s ability to produce offense with him on the ice. But the big (positive) gap between his poor on-ice shot-attempt ratios and his middling on-ice Expected Goal ratios do suggest something of an ability to suppress shot quality and keep opponents out of high-danger areas, as does his Expected On-Ice Fenwick save percentage (95.15 percent, a mark that is bested among Flyers skaters by only Radko Gudas). Through 42 games, Hagg appears to be a limited player but one with some clear positive abilities. That’s a useful piece as a third-pair guy and penalty killer on a team.

The issue is that Hagg hasn’t been a third-pair guy on this team. The young Swede has been used in pretty much exclusively a top-4 role all year, and at some moments where others have been injured he’s played up as high as the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Even if we all agree that Hagg has an ability to use his size, smarts, and athletic gifts to keep players out of dangerous areas, and even though we acknowledge that the coaches have handed him pretty heavy defensive minutes (he starts shifts in the defensive zone more frequently than any Flyers defenseman other than Andrew MacDonald), there’s an argument to be made that Hagg is maybe overmatched in his current role.

Yeah, but: Does Hagg really need to be a great offensive player? That never should have been the expectation for a guy who hasn’t racked up points at really any level of play since he was in Swedish juniors. And the Flyers should have enough quality puck-movers (Provorov, Gostisbehere, Sanheim, eventually Myers) that a player who can play strong defense should be welcomed. Let him be good at what he’s good at.

Still, though ... The issue with that line of thinking manifested itself early in the season, when the pairing of Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere seemed to impress by the eye test (that’ll happen when the goalies stop 96.6 percent of shots, the way they did with those two together) but was underwhelming by most on-ice metrics available.

Right now, Hagg’s most common go-to move on the puck in the defensive zone is far and away a backhand clear along the right-side boards to no one in particular. Even if this (when it works) gives the Flyers a chance to regroup while the other team has to re-enter the zone, it’s a really difficult way to sustainably produce offense, since it doesn’t involve getting the puck to a teammate in a position where he can make a move up-ice with it.

When Hagg was in Lehigh Valley and struggled through a tough second season with the Phantoms, much was made about the fact that he needed to get back to making the simple plays. But while there’s something to be said about not overthinking things in your own end of the ice, there’s also something to be said about being able to jump-start offense from there. True shut-down defenders in today’s NHL aren’t just guys who can keep opponents out of dangerous areas once they’re in the defensive zone, they’re guys who can get the puck to teammates that will take it far, far away from their own third of the ice. Hagg’s got the first part of that equation down. Improving on the second part is the key for him moving forward.

Grade: C+. Hagg’s been given a lot of responsibility early in his career, and that’s not nothing. And it seems evident that he’s at least a good defender. What’s next for Hagg is to show that he’s a good defenseman. Improving his play with the puck should be one of the coaching staff’s big projects in the second half of the year, because if that can happen in a meaningful way, the upside is clearly there for Hagg to be the guy that they think he can be.

Poll

How would you grade Robert Hagg’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    A
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    A-
    (22 votes)
  • 11%
    B+
    (101 votes)
  • 27%
    B
    (252 votes)
  • 28%
    B-
    (261 votes)
  • 12%
    C+
    (117 votes)
  • 10%
    C
    (93 votes)
  • 2%
    C-
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    D+
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (5 votes)
901 votes total Vote Now

Travis Sanheim

Overall Numbers: 1 G, 4 A in 34 GP; 15:31 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 54.5% Corsi-For, 54.1% Expected Goals For, 0.62 Points per 60

In short: Sanheim’s rookie season has surely been a frustrating one for him and the team, but it’s also been one in which he’s shown massive potential.

How so? While his fellow rookie and former Lehigh Valley teammate pretty much had the trust of the Flyers’ coaching staff from the moment he stepped on NHL ice, Sanheim is still working to get even close to that point with Dave Hakstol and company. He was scratched in three of the team’s first six games, and he’s been sat down in five of the team’s six games since the Christmas break. And throughout the season, when he has played, he’s rarely been given more than third-pair minutes, and has only very sparingly been given time on either special teams unit.

To be sure, Sanheim has shown signs of going through a learning curve. He has been somewhat indecisive defensively and has missed assignments at times, leading to goals against for the Flyers. Even though he’s very likely received some poor on-ice luck that has exaggerated the problem (while Sanheim is on the ice at 5-on-5, Flyers goalies have stopped 89.87 percent of shots they’ve faced; for most Flyers, that number is somewhere between 92 and 95), the theory that Sanheim may need some time to grow comfortable in his own end of the ice has played out.

Yet at the same time, Sanheim’s offensive and puck-moving abilities are fairly clear, even if they haven’t quite shown up in his scoring numbers (up until Sanheim scored his first goal in mid-December, it felt like fans and observers had spent nearly two months saying “he’s got to get his first one soon, right? Look at him out there”). His skating has been as advertised, and he’s been a plus player with the puck on his stick. His talent in the offensive end of the ice is evident, as he’s frequently making plays with the puck to create chances for his teammates and sometimes himself. And while yes, his work in the defensive zone needs some work, he appears to have grown more comfortable trying to generate offense and move the puck from his own third.

This was part of what made Sanheim so successful at lower levels — any time you saw him (or a teammate) collect the puck, his head would immediately snap up and he’d start looking up-ice to make a play. That was an easy thing to do when he was bigger, faster, and more talented than nearly everyone he shared the ice with; it’s a bit tougher when you’re at the world’s highest level of hockey and the reaction time you have to make decisions can be nearly instantaneous. But you can tell that he’s slowly starting to get to that kind of comfort level on the puck again.

All of that is how Sanheim’s managed to be among the leaders in Flyers defensemen in nearly every on-ice measure of play that isn’t straight-up goals. He’s second in possession and expected goals ratio, behind only frequent partner and noted play-driver Radko Gudas. A lot of good things happen when Travis Sanheim is on the ice, and the odds are that we’ll start to see that manifest itself on the scoreboard before too long.

Yeah, but: How much of the good underlying process that we’ve seen on the ice with him is actually a product of what he’s done? The coaches give him pretty easy minutes, with a lot of offensive zone starts and bottom-of-the-lineup opposition. And like you said he’s mostly been paired a lot with Gudas, who’s pretty much a lock to push play forward. When he spent some time with Manning in November and December while Gudas was suspended, his numbers dipped a bit. Is this really all his doing?

Still, though ... I’d make the case that, even though it’s not what the coaching staff ever really did with Provorov or Hagg, easing a talented rookie defenseman via a favorable situation in is probably what the coaching staff should be doing. And you can only play against the players on the ice at the same time and place as you, and while Sanheim’s been on the ice the Flyers have largely been beating those players up.

The Sanheim-Gudas pair has, I think, earned a few more minutes than the third-pair amount it currently is getting. When a player or group succeeds in an easy situation, the logical progression from there is to see how they fare in a slightly harder one, not question their abilities for being in an easy one. And I think the only thing holding the Flyers back from taking that former path (beyond their trust of Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg) is the fact that Sanheim’s goal-based numbers have been poor. If luck bounces Sanheim’s way in the second half and the goalies start stopping pucks while he’s on the ice (and, to be fair, a big part of that involves Sanheim improving in his own defensive zone reads), the Flyers simply won’t have much of a reason not to increase his ice time, whether it involves even more favorable minutes or some slightly tougher ones as well.

Grade: C+. Really, Sanheim’s season has been something of a polar opposite of Hagg’s, in that the on-ice results have been frustrating and that he hasn’t quite earned the coaching staff’s trust yet, but there are clear reasons for optimism that haven’t shown themselves on the scoreboard or in goal-based numbers yet. But it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see things take a significant turn for the better in his second half, as long as the coaches give him a chance to show it.

Poll

How would you grade Travis Sanheim’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    A
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    B+
    (21 votes)
  • 8%
    B
    (69 votes)
  • 20%
    B-
    (157 votes)
  • 21%
    C+
    (167 votes)
  • 27%
    C
    (213 votes)
  • 12%
    C-
    (96 votes)
  • 1%
    D+
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    D
    (16 votes)
  • 1%
    D-
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (7 votes)
783 votes total Vote Now

Previously in Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: