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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Travis Sanheim proved himself in first full NHL season

The 23 year old saw an increased role after Hakstol’s firing.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Flyers defense corps can be best summed up over the past few seasons by the following sentence: “Anybody has to be better than Andrew MacDonald”. Year by year, we have slogged through the hockey seasons, waiting patiently for young players to finally emerge from Ron Hextall’s vaunted pipeline. Now, the fruits of Hextall’s labor are steadily making their way to the NHL, and while not all of them will succeed, many of the young defenseman are either barging through the door for an NHL call up, or have already played in the NHL. While we may have lofty expectations for our young players, Travis Sanheim has undoubtedly played out as expected, and has possibly even gone above and beyond expectation. If what we saw from his first full season is indicative of his future skill progression, then we have a lot to be excited about. The future could not be brighter for Travis Sanheim.

No. 3: Travis Sanheim

Position: D
Age: 23 (3/29/1996)
Size: 6’3”, 181
Acquired Via: 2014 NHL Draft — Round 1, Pick 17
2018-19 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) - 9 G, 26 A in 82 GP
Nationality: Canadian
Ranking in BSH Winter 2019 25 Under 25: 5

Sanheim started the 2018-19 season used on the third pair by Dave Hakstol, because of course he was. Now, at the time I was not fully against this idea, but it became evident to me fairly early on that Sanheim is better than a third pair defenseman. He wasn’t just projecting to be better than that, he already was better than that. While Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg were playing above him, Sanheim was playing like one of the Flyers’ best defenseman for a good portion of the season. This is perhaps due to his relative sheltering, as he only averaged 16:11 minutes of game-time during Hakstol’s time as Flyers head coach last season. However, despite this, he still passed the eye-test to many Flyers fans, and one of the main laments thrown towards Hakstol was about Sanheim’s usage.

Speaking of Sanheim’s usage, after Hakstol was fired, Sanheim’s average time on ice (in games 32 through 82) jumped to 21:39. That’s a difference of nearly five and a third minutes more per game after Hakstol’s “departure”. It truly is a damning indictment of Hakstol’s awful personnel choices, that he couldn’t recognize a top four defense talent was better than Robert Hagg. While Scott Gordon was not the best head coach, and in my eyes not the team’s future direction, at least he was able to spot talent when it was obvious.

Under Hakstol, Sanheim spent most of his minutes with Radko Gudas. To be fair to Hakstol, for a while the two played like the Flyers’ best pair on the blue-line. Though, when your best pair in the third pair, this usually doesn’t bode well for the team as a whole (which it did not). Once Scott Gordon took over, Sanheim’s most frequent partner became Ivan Provorov on the top pairing. While Sanheim may not yet be a “first pair” talent, he did well to compliment the struggling Provorov, and some of Provy’s best moments from last season came when Sanheim was playing with him. To me, Sanheim is a very good second pair defenseman from a pure talent perspective, but he absolutely did not look out of place on the top pair.

With this jump in minutes and responsibility came tougher competition, and I thought Sanheim handled it well. While, of course, young defensemen make mistakes, Sanheim did not look out of place against tougher competition. He managed 25 points in his emergence as a top four talent, and was one of the Flyers’ best offensive defensemen. He was only second in total points (35) behind Shayne Gostisbehere (37), and the two were tied for the lead in goals from a defenseman with nine. He also helped the second power-play unit look better than the previous season. To be fair, the second unit improved from “completely ineffective” to “not very good”, but an improvement is an improvement!

The change in Sanheim’s usage, both in terms of minutes and partners, helps explain his strange Corsi-for statistics, which regressed from 55.53% under Hakstol to 47.34% under Gordon. Besides the team playing poorly as a whole last season, Sanheim played more games under Gordon (50) than under Hakstol (31). Therefore, the sample size was likely to effect Sanheim’s Corsi-for percentage when taking into account the increased level of competition he faced while playing with Provorov instead of Gudas. I have no doubts in my mind that Sanheim can have a positive Corsi-for impact next season.

Next year, with the additions of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, Sanheim looks to move over to the left side of the defense, with right-handed shot Justin Braun taking the RD position on the second pair. From a glance, it appears that the Flyers are trying to fully unleash Sanheim’s offensive capabilities with Braun being a more defensively responsible skater. While Braun can help break up opposition rushes and stop two on one opportunities, Sanheim can be given the freedom to assist in the transition game, and to pitch in on offensive plays and help set up forwards (and even take opportunities of his own to shoot). If this is going to be the case for 2019-20, then we should all be getting very excited.

Statistics via Corsica Hockey and Dobber Sports

Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2019 Top 25 Under 25: