Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Is Travis Sanheim already done with the AHL?

Can Sanheim, coming off of a great first professional season, sneak up on one of the older prospect defensemen and grab a spot in the NHL right now?

Heading into the night of Ron Hextall’s first draft as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, it seemed like something big was in the air. The Flyers might trade up to the top pick! They’re hosting the draft! It’s Ron freaking Hextall! They’re the freaking Flyers! They’ve got to do something crazy, right?

The Flyers faithful in the crowd waited through the late afternoon and up to the draft roll call with bated breath, unsure if the team’s new guy in charge would be the one to shake up the draft right at home. But they’d keep waiting as the draft got going. And ultimately, their wait would end at the 17th pick in said draft, when Hextall didn’t do anything crazy.

Instead, he calmly went up to the podium and announced the pick of Travis Sanheim, a 6’3”, 181-pound defenseman from the tiny village of Elkhorn, Manitoba. A blueliner who had just completed his first year with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, Sanheim was an unknown to a lot of the fans in attendance (and in the fanbase at large). At the time, for those who may not have been experts on prospects, how you as a Flyers fan felt about the pick probably depended on just how much you trusted Ron Hextall, who at the time was also still a relatively unknown quantity as a general manager and a drafter.

It’s been three years since that pick — Hextall’s first pick as GM of the Flyers — and in some ways, the Sanheim selection is a microcosm of how the franchise’s young talent has trended as a whole in that time. In three years and four drafts under Hextall, the Flyers have gone from having a bottom-rung prospect corps to having arguably the deepest group of prospects in the entire NHL. And of all of their talented young defensemen that have yet to make an impact at the NHL level, Sanheim — who, in his post-draft season, immediately made Hextall’s selection on that June night in Philadelphia look smart — may well be the most exciting of all of them.

No. 6: Travis Sanheim

Position: D
Age: 21 (3/29/1996)
Acquired Via: 2014 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 17
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - 10 G, 27 A in 76 GP
Nationality: Canadian
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: 5

At the time of his selection, Sanheim had two major claims to fame. The first was his ascendance up the draft boards during his first WHL season; after occasionally being a healthy scratch early on in his first year with Calgary, he rocketed up their depth chart (and, in turn, up the draft rankings) as his season went on. Beyond that, Sanheim was primarily known for his work with the under-18 Canadian World Junior team in 2014; there, he led Team Canada as well as all defensemen at the tournament in scoring, as he and the Canadian team picked up bronze medals.

Additionally, watching him play, it was obvious how a team could fall in love with him as a prospect. His size and speed combination is something that’s really tough to find, one that’s just so valuable in the modern NHL. Still, to that point, the sample size of success for Sanheim was small. The pick was a gamble by Hextall, and his development in the WHL over the next two years would prove to be crucial. Fortunately, Sanheim made it pretty clear that he had the makings of a great defenseman in him before long.

As Calgary’s No. 1 defenseman in 2014-15, Sanheim more than doubled his scoring pace from the previous season, ending up just under a point-a-game (15 goals, 50 assists in 67 games) while easily leading all WHL defensemen in 5-on-5 points (via prospect-stats). He was one of the last cuts on Team Canada’s under-20 World Junior team in that same season, but as an 18-year old, his being in the conversation to make that team was impressive enough in and of itself. Sanheim had more than justified the Flyers’ early selection of him in the draft.

To some Flyers fans who were still basking in the glow of both the team’s selection of Ivan Provorov in the 2015 draft and Shayne Gostisbehere’s electrifying rookie year in the NHL, Sanheim almost flew under the radar in 2015-16. But take another step forward he did, as he bested his point total from the previous season despite playing in 15 fewer games — games that he missed in large part due to an invite to that same WJC team he had just missed out on the year prior. Sanheim didn’t play a key role on that WJC team and never quite earned Canada head coach Dave Lowry’s trust, but again, his simply being on the team was a sign the Flyers had something special on their hands as Sanheim prepared to go pro the following year.

Taking the next step

After two straight years of thoroughly dominating the junior levels, 2016-17 posed a new test for Sanheim, who was sent to the Phantoms late in Flyers training camp. How would he look on a more level playing field, against professionals that he wasn’t always bigger and faster than?

Offensively, Sanheim’s game translated to the pros quite smoothly. Sanheim’s 37 points in 76 games represent a solid enough mark for any offensive defenseman, a mark that would put him in the top 30 in the AHL among defensemen — but considering his age, those numbers are all the more impressive. Here’s how Sanheim’s scoring totals stacked up to those of AHL defensemen as a whole, as well as how they stacked up to all defensemen under-22 and under-21.

Travis Sanheim 2016-17 AHL Scoring Ranks

MeasureAll AHL Defensemen (191)21-or-younger Defensemen (50)20-or-younger Defensemen (26)
Total Points1665
Primary PointsT-1564
Primary Points/GameT-2375
5v5 Total PointsT-8T-1T-1
5v5 Primary PointsT-521
5v5 Points/GameT-2474
5v5 Primary Points/GameT-14T-3T-1

(All numbers in this table via; “primary points” are goals and first assists.)

You can see Sanheim’s standing relative to the rest of the AHL is solid enough, but what’s really encouraging is that his performance only looks even more impressive when you focus in on 5-on-5 numbers. That’s a great sign for a Flyers team that has been hurting for 5-on-5 offense for a while. Additionally, on the scale of young defensemen in the league, Sanheim clearly grades out toward the top.

The questions surrounding Sanheim, as his point totals have skyrocketed, have always had to do with his defensive abilities. Is he strong enough in his own third of the ice to be more than just an offensive specialist? Sanheim’s “strength” defensively will likely always be his game in transition — watch him any time he gets the puck in the defensive zone, and you can tell that his mindset is “how can I get the puck out of here and into the other team’s zone?” — but his play off the puck remains a bit of a work in progress.

Still, even if he’s never great in terms of coverage and assignments in his team’s zone, Sanheim has the tools to at least be capable. A strong, athletic, 6’4” and 200-pound defenseman should be able to cover for himself at times. Additionally, there are reasons to believe he’s made some strides here during his first pro season, as our own Charlie O’Connor pointed out during development camp:

What will decide when [Sanheim] makes his NHL debut is his defensive play without the puck, and I’m happy to report that this was the best he’s looked in that area at a development camp. In D-zone coverage drills on Sunday, Sanheim showed solid positional awareness, and was using his frame far more effectively than he has in past years to directly challenge opposing forwards. That’s not to say he was perfect — he made mistakes, including one rep where he lost his man in front of the net, which prompted Sanheim to slam his stick against the boards in frustration. But while in past years his “good-to-bad rep” ratio in coverage drills was around 50/50, this time it was closer to 75/25. He’s clearly making progress.

And Hextall himself had some things to say about the various lessons Sanheim learned this year, as he adjusted to the AHL game and realized he couldn’t quite pull off all of the same things he could in juniors:

"He did a really good job last year from start to finish — got a lot better," [Hextall] said. "The adjustment on the first month, month and a half, where he was going too much up ice, a little bit irresponsible and all of a sudden, a month, month and a half in, figured that part out. That was a huge step for him. He got better, he got better throughout the year and he needs to continue on that."

If Sanheim can even get to “adequate” in terms of defensive zone coverage, that in and of itself should be enough for him to be a heck of a defenseman in the NHL. Not to mention, if things work out elsewhere in the system, the Flyers should have some more defensive-minded personnel that they can pair with him: Samuel Morin (Sanheim’s primary defensive partner in Lehigh Valley this year), Robert Hagg, and even Ivan Provorov are all fairly capable defensive defensemen, and any of them could work well on a pairing with Sanheim.

NHL-bound already?

With the progress he’s made so far, the only question remaining is when Sanheim will stick with the NHL team. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, of the four young defensemen fighting for two spots on the NHL team, Morin and Hagg are the clubhouse leaders as of right now. And it’s true that with two and three AHL seasons to their respective names, one could just think it’s “their time” to get a promotion to the game’s highest level.

But there’s a reasonable case that Sanheim’s first year with the Phantoms was more impressive than any year Hagg or Morin have had with the Phantoms. It’s certainly the case offensively — neither of the Flyers’ two 2013 early-round defensemen have ever topped 20 points in an AHL season, a mark barely more than half of Sanheim’s first-year total. And while the other two are probably both a bit more refined on the defensive side of the game, neither of them is as good on the puck as Sanheim no matter what zone they’re in. The all-around package that Sanheim brings to the table may just be too much for the other two to beat out come September, and Hextall has always been adamant that the best players will play no matter who has tenure.

To that end, Sanheim has made it clear he expects to be on the NHL team this fall, since he said as much at development camp. It’ll take a great camp for him to wrest away a spot from one of Morin or Hagg (or perhaps an already-established NHL player), and we can’t know how things will work out. But even if he doesn’t make the team right out of camp, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see him get a call-up at some point this year if he improves upon where he was in the AHL last year. Ron Hextall’s first-ever draft pick looks like he’s almost ready for the big show, and Sanheim might just turn out to be everything Hextall was hoping for when he made that pick after all.

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Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: