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A deep dive into what the Flyers have in Travis Sanheim

Sanheim has quickly become the Flyers’ most polarizing defenseman. What does he bring to the table?

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NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Seven years after being drafted 17th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2014 NHL entry draft, Travis Sanheim has become a polarizing figure amongst the fanbase.

The reasons are obvious enough as Sanheim hasn’t exactly cemented himself as a star in the league while seemingly possessing a lot of the tools necessary to do so. From the outside looking in, that’s seemingly caused a large portion of the fanbase to tire of Sanheim over the last few seasons. He’s not a physical player despite being a 6’3” defender, and that seems to be brought up a lot by his detractors, but he’s probably a lot better than he gets credit for.

It’s likely not all that surprising to see that Sanheim has leaned heavily on his offensive skills to drive play in order to make up for his questionable defensive abilities. The more you dig, though, the more perplexing Sanheim becomes in terms of analyzing how he gets to those results.

In 2021, Sanheim posted the best chance suppression numbers on the Flyers blueline, but the second worst goals against rate, better than only his most common partner in now departed Phillippe Myers. The glaring issue for Sanheim is that he couldn’t get a save from his goaltender as his on-ice save percentage of .885% ranked 443rd of 448 players to play 500+ minutes this season. Most of that can likely be attributed to bad luck because the majority of that is out of his control, but there are some contextual factors to it as well.

I re-watched a handful of Sanheim’s games from 2021 and one thing I noticed was that while Sanheim didn’t give up chances frequently, when he did they were often grade A rush chances usually when he got caught too deep in the offensive zone. Looking at Corey Sznajder’s tracking data suggests that may be a consistent issue for Sanheim. He’s become much more aggressive in denying entries over the last couple of years to the point that his denial rate was highest on the Flyers blueline. The problem is that Sanheim still gives up chances off entries at the second highest rate on the team, better than only Ivan Provorov. Sanheim also concedes passes on entries at a higher rate than any other blueliner on the team, which often makes the ensuing chance a lot more dangerous. In short, Sanheim has turned up the aggressiveness in terms of attacking puck carriers, but he’s giving a lot of that value back due to the quality chances he’s giving up when he does get beat.

Some of the rush chances conceded in the video above wouldn’t even be scored as an entry chance against due to the fact that Sanheim was way behind the play, but that doesn’t take him off the hook. There are a couple where the pinch was likely justified, but the winger covering for him either did a terrible job of it or doesn’t make a real effort at staying in coverage.

More often, though, Sanheim simply makes an overaggressive read and gets caught. This one below on the penalty kill was especially egregious, especially considering the fact that it was on the penalty kill.

Or this one where Sanheim jumps into the zone and should have a good lane to the net for a shot, but instead wipes out resulting in Jakub Voracek defending an odd-man rush. I included this one both because it was funny and because the issue of Sanheim’s ill-timed wipe outs are apparently a consistent issue, which feels odd considering he’s a great skater.

Sanheim’s aforementioned speed also helps him recover sometimes when he’s beat on a pinch that isn’t too egregious, so that needs to be considered as well. If he wasn’t such a good skater (when he’s staying on his feet) he would get burned a lot more.

It’s also worth noting that the aggressive pinches that led to Sanheim getting burned so often for rush chances the other way also played a huge role in his ability to drive offence. Everybody remembers when you do get caught, but nobody remembers the multiple times in between where the pinch is successful and it leads to more offensive zone time, which naturally leads to more chances for.

The other hole defensively for Sanheim in past years has been his tendency to get burned on the forecheck and that seems like it’s still an issue. Referring again to Corey’s manually tracked data, Sanheim gave up eight chances immediately preceding a dump in, which was highest on the Flyers — nobody else beyond Braun gave up more than two.

I didn’t catch any of these moments in my viewings, but here’s a video Charlie O’Connor posted back in November of 2019 highlighting Sanheim’s struggles against a strong forechecking team in the Islanders.

Part of the problem is obviously that Sanheim isn’t all that strong in battles despite his 6’3 frame. He’s still pretty slim as he’s listed at 181 pounds, so when he loses body positioning, it’s pretty difficult to recover. The other thing I’ve noticed is that while Sanheim is a smooth straight line skater, he’s not all that agile on his edges. A lot of modern defenders are able to use deception with their feet to escape pressuring opposition forwards, but I don’t see that much from Sanheim. My theory is that it makes him a much easier target to pin down on the forecheck especially considering his length, as you only have to get a piece of him to slow him down and start a one on one battle, a situation he struggles in. Sanheim thrives in open ice, but not so much in tight areas under pressure.

“He was their best player at defending entries this year until the roof caved in on the entire team. Like, miles better than anyone else but that faded around the time everyone got covid.” - Corey Sznajder

Despite the holes in his defensive game, there are still a lot of positives to go off of that led to him giving up less chances than his teammates. While Sanheim does get beat clean from time to time, his newfound aggressiveness mixed with his speed and reach usually allow him to break plays up early. The fact that he started off so hot in this department before going down with Covid may be something to keep in mind going forward. The hope would be that you can expect to see the early season version of Sanheim next year when fully healthy, but it’ll be interesting to track at the very least.

Sanheim looked pretty to solid to me once defending in-zone as that long reach often comes in handy in these situations. The defender is able to get his stick on a lot of pucks while defending the middle lane in these situations because his speed and length mean he’s simply able to cover a lot of ground. It’s really frustrating to play against those types of defencemen because they always seem to be on top of you disrupting plays just enough to keep them out of the dangerous areas. His lack of physicality often seems to help in this department because he doesn’t get caught overcommitting like he does elsewhere. Instead, he’s able to contain players to the outside and wait for them to try to force a play that isn’t there, rather than attacking and getting beat to the net sometimes.

I’m sure there are situations here where you’d like to see him be a little more physical, but generally I think it helps him to contain more than attack for hits more often here. It also helps him stay out of the penalty box as his +1 penalty differential over the last three seasons makes him one of only 17 defencemen to be in the positives there. Put simply, I think he boxes out pretty well when they get stuck defending in-zone where everybody is more set, which requires similar tools to the ones that make him serviceable on the penalty kill.

When he does get the puck back, Sanheim is one of the Flyers best two defencemen at exiting the zone with control, although that wasn’t always the case.

“First couple of years in the league he was one of the Flyers best players at controlled entries but was really average/bad on exits. Would just fling the puck off the glass as his first move.” - Corey Sznajder

Sanheim still isn’t elite by any means in this department, but he’s improved enough to the point that it’s become a legitimate strength in his game. The aforementioned escapability aspect likely prevents him from becoming one of the best at moving the puck up ice, but he’s pretty reliable now and also likes to jump into the play up to facilitate the breakout.

Ultimately, the defensive warts are concerning, but far from catastrophic moving forward. While the specific defensive holes in Sanheim’s game are obviously suboptimal, the goaltending was still likely the larger issue here and he’ll almost definitely get more saves moving forward whether he cleans up those issues or not. In summary, I do believe the raw chance suppression rates that have him as the best defensive defenceman on the team are likely missing some key contextual factors, thus painting him in a better light than he should, while the goal metrics are way out of whack the other way.

While not nearly to the same extent as his chance suppression rate vs. his goals against rate differ, his career on-ice goals for rate is slightly higher than his career on-ice expected goals rate. This makes a lot of sense to me as a lot of the things that make him susceptible to giving up grade A chances also put him in a position to create those chances the other way more often than most. That’s the give and take nature of the style of game he plays and while it’s frustrating when things aren’t going his way, the positives far outweigh the negatives from a total value standpoint.

From the red line in, the first thing that stands out is something Corey pointed out earlier in his comment on Sanheim’s ability to enter the offensive zone with control at a really high rate. Here’s the rest of Corey’s comment referring to the first couple seasons of Sanheim’s career:

“He was awesome as an extra attacker/entry specialist. I usually don’t see that from a defenseman. He got better as time went on, but he was really good at commanding things from the red line forward for awhile.”

While Sanheim may be slightly more selective these days in terms of leading the rush, he’s still very active and efficient for a defenceman. The only Flyer anywhere near him in that department was the now Arizona Coyote Gostisbehere, which is the case in several puck moving areas.

As mentioned earlier and shown in some of his exits, Sanheim thrives in open ice when he’s able to use his long stride to back up the defence and find lanes into the offensive zone. He also sees the ice really well in the offensive zone for a defenceman and is able to slow things down and find open lanes. There aren’t a lot of defencemen who are any good at all in this department, so it’s a nice luxury to have.

What I noticed even more often was Sanheim joining the rush as the trailer, beating the defending winger into the zone or catching them too deep and unaware of him sneaking into the play.

Sanheim is very efficient offensive zone player for a defenceman as well, as he creates grade A chances for himself and doesn’t rely on flinging long range point shots. As a result, he ranks eighth among the 234 defencemen to play 1000+ 5v5 minutes over the last three seasons in expected shooting percentage. That simply means he’s able to create his shots from dangerous areas like not many other defenders can, which matches what I saw in my viewings.

The problem for Sanheim in 2021 was that his on-ice shooting percentage tanked nearly as bad as his on-ice save percentage, ranking 399th of 448 qualified players. I doubt that had much to do with Sanheim as he was still creating dangerous chances for himself, but it’s something to monitor going forward.

The Flyers still didn’t use him on the powerplay much, instead opting for Gostisbehere and Provorov. That prevents his box car numbers from ever popping off the page, but he is a decent point producing defencemen at 5-on-5 as he’s tied for 41st over the last three years. Judging a defenceman by points is an exercise in futility, but take that for what it’s worth.

Ultimately, Sanheim isn’t a perfect player and there are definitely some legitimate holes in his game, but he’s shown improvement and I do think goaltending sewered him to a pretty crazy degree this season, even considering the grade-A chances given up. He was one of the “unluckiest” players in the league looking at his on-ice save percentage and shooting percentage and I find it hard to believe Sanheim’s goal metrics won’t regress closer to the expected goal rates. His newly signed two-year deal will give the Flyers a chance to find out for certain and it gives Sanheim the chance to prove he’s worth a long-term commitment from any team as it walks him right into unrestricted free-agency. If I were betting on it, I’d bet that Sanheim is going to have a lot of teams clamouring for his services when that time comes, assuming the Flyers don’t lock him up before then.