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2021-22 Player Review: Travis Sanheim was the Flyers’ best defenseman

The Flyers didn’t have many positives from the 2021-22 season, but Travis Sanheim was definitely one of them.

Philadelphia Flyers v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Flyers had almost too many issues to list last season. They finished the campaign with the second-fewest goals for in the league (only the Arizona Coyotes scored fewer), the roster was completely bereft of high-end talent (aside from Claude Giroux, who was moved at the trade deadline) and the injury bug bit them as hard as any team in the NHL.

But perhaps the Flyers’ most glaring weakness last season was their poor play in the defensive zone. The injury to Ryan Ellis proved to be catastrophic, and the Flyers’ other defensemen were never able recover.

All except for Travis Sanheim.

This is not to say Sanheim had a particularly awe-inspiring season. But it was certainly a very good season for the 26-year-old, especially when taking into account how quickly things began to disintegrate piece by piece over the duration of the campaign. For his efforts, Sanheim was awarded the Barry Ashbee Trophy, given to the Flyers’ top defenseman, as well as his second Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy as the team’s most improved player.

Selected in the first round (No. 17 overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Sanheim has shown encouraging flashes in the past. One could argue, though, that this past season was possibly Sanheim’s best. Not only did he finish the season tied for the team lead in points by a defenseman — he posted seven goals and 31 total points — and set a new career high in average time on ice per game (22:58), but he was also the team’s best defender in the advanced statistics department, leading all Flyers defensemen (minimum 250 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time) in Corsi For percentage (47.34), Expected Goals For percentage (48.66) and Goals For percentage (54.17) at 5-on-5.

Evolving-Hockey.com

On the surface, those numbers may not be anything to write home about. But on a particularly weak Flyers team, they’re stellar in comparison to those of his teammates. And the numbers become even more impressive when considering who Sanheim was paired with for much of the season.

Rasmus Ristolainen, while he does bring an element of physicality to the table, has struggled mightily to drive play throughout his career. And when Sanheim was on the ice with Ristolainen (which happened quite often), his numbers suffered as a result.

It’s unclear if Sanheim and Ristolainen will be reunited to begin the 2022-23 season, but if so, it’ll be Sanheim continuing to do most of the heavy lifting as a play-driver.

Sanheim’s metrics with Ristolainen

With Ristolainen Without Ristolainen
With Ristolainen Without Ristolainen
42.24 CF% 50.80 CF%
45.38 GF% 55.17 GF%
42.96 xGF% 48.69 xGF%

Sanheim still has some room for improvement. He finished the season ranked second on the team in giveaways and could still take some steps forward defensively — especially when it comes to defending zone entries. But all things considered, Sanheim put together an encouraging campaign in a season in which the Flyers had very few identifiable positives.

“Tough this year mentally for sure. To be able to continue to keep playing and battle through, and yet it felt like you were getting nowhere — probably easy to throw the towel in,” said Sanheim during his exit interview. “In saying that, I’m not satisfied at all with my game. I feel like there’s still more steps to be taken. We want to create a winning culture here and a winning environment, and I gotta be a big part of taking that next step.”