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Travis Sanheim could be key to the Flyers’ first-round upset bid

Things have gone well for the Flyers’ defense since the rookie was recalled in March. Now, against Pittsburgh, they may need his skill set more than ever.

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NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

“This series will be decided by each team’s depth” is something that you hear said a lot around this time of the year, about many different series. Pretty much all of them, in fact. Despite the fact that the postseason is a time in which teams tend to shorten their benches and lean on their best players, teams that can roll four lines or three pairings without hesitation do seem to have a bit of an edge when the big games roll around.

At first glance, you’d think that if there was ever a series where “depth wins out” wouldn’t be the case, it could be the one set to begin in Pittsburgh tonight. On one side, you’ve got, among others, a potential MVP candidate, a potential Selke candidate, and one of the best set-up wingers in the NHL. On the other side, you’ve got, among others, the best player of this generation (sorry), another one of the best centers of this generation (really, I’m sorry), and one of the best goal-scoring wingers in hockey.

It’s tempting to try and boil this series down to Giroux vs. Crosby, Voracek vs. Malkin, Shayne Gostisbehere vs. Kris Letang, etc., and simply say that whichever stars win their respective matchups are probably the ones that will still have hockey to play at this time in about two weeks. Yet even here, we’re going to have to talk about depth. Not just because you can, y’know, have depth in the way of spreading your star players throughout the lineup, but because simply having two stars dotting your lineup isn’t enough.

Just ask the Penguins. These were the 16 skaters not named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who skated for Pittsburgh on the night that they were last eliminated from the playoffs, three postseasons ago:

  • Blake Comeau
  • Steve Downie
  • Patric Hornqvist
  • Chris Kunitz
  • Maxim Lapierre
  • David Perron
  • Nick Spaling
  • Brandon Sutter
  • Scott Wilson
  • Daniel Winnik
  • Taylor Chorney
  • Ian Cole
  • Brian Dumoulin
  • Ben Lovejoy
  • Paul Martin
  • Rob Scuderi

Yikes. That’s maybe the most striking example (and, in fairness, it’s one in which Letang didn’t play), but it’s not terribly unrepresentative of the kinds of lineups Pittsburgh would toss out onto the ice in the years between their first and second Stanley Cups of the Crosby Era. Depth problems plagued Pittsburgh for the better part of a decade, and along with injury problems and some memorable goaltending implosions in the postseason, those depth issues are the biggest reason why a team with two of the best individual players of this era went seven years between championships.

That miniature drought, of course, ended the year that the Penguins went and got Phil Kessel to anchor their third line, and went and swung deals for Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Justin Schultz, and called up Conor Sheary, and replaced Rob Scuderi with Trevor Daley, and snagged Matt Cullen in free agency. Good playoff teams were able to beat Crosby, Malkin, And Sixteen Dudes for several consecutive years earlier this decade (in the years where Crosby and Malkin were both healthy, which admittedly was not every year). In the past two seasons, teams haven’t yet found a way to top Crosby, Malkin, And Some Actual Hockey Players.

We already know that if the likes of Giroux, Couturier, Voracek, Gostisbehere, and Provorov don’t play basically as well as they can over the next four to seven games, the Flyers aren’t moving on to the next round. That was going to be true no matter who the Flyers matched up against. But even if these guys, all of whom are arguably the best years of their respective careers, toss everything they possibly can at the likes of Crosby and Malkin, it’s tough to ask them to win that matchup so decisively that they can overcome advantages that Pittsburgh has in the bottom two-thirds or so of the lineup.

Couple all of that with the fact that it almost certainly won’t be as simple as “match up your best guys against their best guys” (inevitably, the Flyers won’t be able to get their top line or pairing out against Crosby all the time), and it’s clear that the Flyers are going to need some guys in the bottom half of their lineup to step it up beyond levels that we may reasonably expect them to.

Based on both the Flyers’ trends of late and the matchup at hand, Travis Sanheim is someone in the bottom part of the lineup who we’ll probably be talking about if the Flyers manage to spring an upset in this series.

Improved defensive depth coincides with Sanheim’s return

On December 23, prior to the Flyers’ game in Columbus that night, Dave Hakstol took the Flyers’ lines and pairings that we’d grown somewhat accustomed to up to that point and tossed them into a blender. The end result was a lineup that has actually had a fair bit of stability since then, particularly on the blue line, where the decision was made to put the team’s two best defensemen — Provorov and Gostisbehere — together on a pairing.

And that pairing was fantastic. Both of the players on it looked as good as they ever have at the NHL level, and the Flyers were simply caving teams in whenever Provorov and Ghost were on the ice together. The problems, though, came during the ice time where those two weren’t on the ice together, and any other pair of defensemen (including just one of Provorov or Gostisbehere with someone else) was.

We discussed this here in February, mentioning that the Flyers’ on-ice goal rates without their true top pair on the ice were comparable to those of the Buffalo Sabres’ — not exactly company you want to be keeping.

This trend continued for about two more weeks, until the Flyers recalled Travis Sanheim on March 9 prior to the team’s game against Winnipeg the next day. Sanheim would go on to play in each of the Flyers’ final 14 games, in something of a third-pair role alongside Andrew MacDonald.

With a month’s worth of games since that call-up, let’s revisit the question: how have the Flyers done lately without their top pairing on the ice? We’ve split out the time prior to Sanheim’s recall and lined it up next to the time since that recall. It’s subtle, but there’s a slight difference between the two time frames.

Flyers 5-on-5 On-Ice Goal and Shot Differentials

Timeframe Goal Differential, Gostisbehere And Provorov Goal Differential, Any Other Pairing Adjusted Shot Share, Gostisbehere + Provorov Adjusted Shot Share, Any Other Pairing
Timeframe Goal Differential, Gostisbehere And Provorov Goal Differential, Any Other Pairing Adjusted Shot Share, Gostisbehere + Provorov Adjusted Shot Share, Any Other Pairing
12/23 - 3/8 23-13 (+10) 39-52 (-13) 54.8% 48.2%
3/10 - 4/7 13-13 (0) 21-14 (+7) 48.9% 51.5%

(Numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool.)

While the Gostisbehere/Provorov pairing fell down to earth a little bit in the season’s final month, the Flyers’ performance without those two on the ice took a meaningful step forward in that time, going from getting meaningfully outscored to meaningfully outscoring their opponents. Sanheim himself leads the way here, as the Flyers outscored opponents 9-4 with him on the ice at 5-on-5 in that time.

And while 14 games’ worth of goal differential is a small enough sample that some noise and good fortune are likely at play here, a look at the underlying numbers backs up the idea that there’s been an improvement: the top-pair-less Flyers got about three more percentage points’ worth of on-ice shot attempts once Sanheim was back than they did before his recall. Given Sanheim’s routinely-excellent on-ice shot share numbers — ones which have largely held up alongside Andrew MacDonald, someone who is not exactly known for posting good on-ice shot differentials — it’s not hard to attribute much of that improvement by the Flyers’ depth defensemen to his presence.

Sanheim is well-suited for the Penguins’ aggressive style

Few have denied that Sanheim possesses immense talent when it comes to skating and moving the puck up-ice. For years now, since the Flyers have drafted him, he figured to be a player that could make a name for himself by what he does with the puck on his stick. But Sanheim’s not a finished product, and questions have followed him all year about his performance in his own third of the ice. In fact, those questions were what led the Flyers to have him spend an extra six or so weeks in Lehigh Valley mid-season.

While I happen to believe those concerns are, at times, a bit overstated, it’s fair to say that Sanheim has work to do, particularly when it comes do proper defensive zone coverage and keeping track of his man down low. And that has the potential to be problematic against a Penguins team with the talent to pick you apart if you give them an inch while they’re on the attack.

But the Flyers have actually been a pretty solid team by most metrics this season in terms of defensive zone coverage. Hard to believe at times, I know, but the Flyers are in the top 10 of all NHL teams at 5-on-5 in preventing scoring chances (ninth) and high-danger scoring chances (seventh, both figures via Natural Stat Trick), and their Expected Goals Against rates at 5-on-5 are eighth-best in the league (via Corsica). The Flyers, as a team, can play defense in their own third of the ice when they have some time to get set. The degree of difficulty in doing so in this series, against this team, will be tougher than usual, but we’ve got at least some reason for optimism.

The Penguins’ best chance at making life miserable for the Flyers may be by staying aggressive and forcing the Flyers to make mistakes on the puck. That aggressiveness, however, can be exploited by the right players with the right skillsets, and this may be where Sanheim can make a difference.

Over at The Athletic, BSH Radio’s own Charlie O’Connor wrote a tremendous piece previewing both teams’ respective tactics in each portion of the ice. I won’t go into too much detail here, because you should read that piece, but after a lengthy explanation of the Penguins’ aggressive 1-2-2 offensive zone forecheck and how it forces players into battles they can’t win when executed to perfection, Charlie drops in a quote from Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald on how to handle the Pens’ forecheck. Emphasis mine:

“Well, any time they have three guys low, we’ve got to have three low. Our wingers have to sag down to help out a little bit for any breakdowns. But you’ve just got to win your 1-on-1 battles, try to separate them from the puck. And if we can get it up to our forwards, [the Penguins] have to back check the full 200 feet, and if we can do that and get it in their zone and grind them down a little bit, they’ll be a tired group.”

This is where Sanheim is going to have to both do what he does best, and be at his best while doing it.

Sanheim may not always be totally on point when it comes to defensive zone coverage, but when he has the puck, he tends to at least know where he wants to go with it. His head is always up, looking for someone to hit with the puck in transition, whether it’s a lateral pass to someone with a better view in front of them or a longer shot to someone out closer to the blue line.

You may remember this most recent example, which took place on the memorable final goal of the Flyers’ regular season.

That, obviously, is a best-case example, what with a lob pass finding its way out to center ice where the Flyers’ best player beat two guys to the puck in a foot race to get himself a breakaway. Not to mention, this was in the third period of a 4-0 game, so the stakes were pretty low at this point. But you can still see Sanheim, barely having time to even control the puck with a Ranger bearing down on him on either side, seemingly effortlessly flip the puck out of the zone where a forward could find it.

Against a Pittsburgh team that skates fast, plays fast, and knows its roles on the ice, Sanheim is going to have to be ready to make passes like those, whether they’re shorter passes to the wingers sagging down like MacDonald mentioned or longer-shots not unlike the one taken above. They will need to be decisive passes made with little hesitation. There will be some risks that will have to be taken, and odds are that not all of them are going to end up looking pretty.

But breaking up that Pittsburgh forecheck could be the key to the Flyers beating the Penguins, and the upside of making the right play in situations like these is significant. Worst-case, as MacDonald mentions, you force the Pens to chase you down and tire themselves out in doing so. Best-case, you have an odd-man situation the other way that leads to a goal.

Sanheim played in just two games during the Flyers’ season series with the Penguins. On November 27, in the Flyers’ first OT loss in Pittsburgh, Sanheim played just 10:22 in that game, easily the lowest amount of any defenseman on the team. He took just three shifts in the third period of the game, and didn’t see the ice in the final 8:34 of regulation. After being a healthy scratch on January 2 and being in the minors on March 7, Sanheim was back with the team for their March 25 contest in Pittsburgh, and he’d get 17:48 of time in that game (a game in which he scored his second career NHL goal). After that game, Sanheim didn’t play that much (at least 17:48) in a single game again until last Saturday, when he got 20:09 of time against the Rangers in a game that was well in hand in the third period.

Did the coaches just like how Sanheim played that day against Pittsburgh? Or have they recently seen something in his game that makes him a good fit to square off with the Penguins and the way they play the game? Whether it’s planned or not, an increase in responsibility from the guy who’s been used essentially as the sixth defenseman since returning to the Flyers should be in order here.

The Flyers are going to need their big guns to be their big guns. But as the guys they’ll take the ice against tonight can tell you, you’re going to need reinforcements up and down the lineup to win playoff series no matter how good your top guys are. The situation at hand here tells us that Travis Sanheim has a very good chance to be one of those reinforcements for the Flyers. The future certainly appears to be bright for Ron Hextall’s first-ever draft pick, but he’s got a good chance to make the present a pretty special time, too.