Make way for the big fella.
The 6’6″, 227 lb monster that is Sam Morin will be fighting for a spot with the Philadelphia Flyers yet again this fall. He was drafted with the 11th overall pick four years ago by Ron Hextall’s predecessor Paul Holmgren and has been chipping and grinding through his personal development in the QMJHL and AHL ever since.
This year, though, Morin sits in the top tier of prospects that are expected to claim a full-time roster spot in the National Hockey League right out of training camp. For the first time since Hextall took over as GM, the Flyers have blatantly left the door wide open for several kids to come through on the blue line.
“Our feeling is now that our young guys have shown enough where they’re going to get an opportunity to make our team,” Hextall said via NHL.com “There was a point a couple years ago we had some young names but they weren’t ready to play, not ready to make us a better team. We feel like we’re at that point where they’re going to get an opportunity now.”
Morin got about as close as you can get without making the roster three years ago as the final cut in camp, but Hextall and the Flyers decided it was best for him to return to his Rimouski Océanic squad in the QMJHL. That season ended up being a good experience for Morin, who had 32 points in 38 regular season games and 11 points in 19 playoff games en route to being crowned a QMJHL champion alongside his teammates.
When his junior career came to a close, he joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to begin his tenure in the professional ranks. Over the last two seasons, Morin has been seasoning his game and matured even more physically and mentally.
His methodical development under the Flyers’ umbrella, and specifically Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon, has been a slower but steady ride. He’s been busy erasing bad habits from junior hockey, working on being in the right place at the right time more often than not instead of having to overskate to make up for mistakes. He still makes a risky hit or two, but his massive frame makes even a lean into an opposing player look more dangerous than it would if it came from any mortal-bodied hockey player.
Morin bought into the Flyers’ patient, and sometimes painstakingly strict, approach to how young players are handled in their development. He’s a much more well-rounded player now than he was even just a year ago, and he’s thankful that the organization gave him an opportunity to grow into his game.
“I know my time’s going to come. I didn’t want to go to the NHL and not get better because I wasn’t playing a lot,” Morin said earlier this year. “In juniors, I got a lot of ice time, here I’ve gotten a lot of ice time and I’ve gotten better every day and [I’m] still getting better.”
He’s turned those lessons and steps forward into a confidence almost as monstrous as his stature.
“I’m still young. When you see me in five years in the NHL, you’re going to be like, ‘That time in the AHL was worth it.'”
Morin made his long-awaited NHL debut late last season in an overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils. While a bit anxious, Morin fared well overall in a game I’m sure he’s been dreaming and thinking about for many years.
He stood up a few Devils at the blueline to break up rushes. He recovered well when he was out of position, his long strides allowing him to close gaps that didn’t look manageable.
Morin got a lot help from teammates that night and was able to take that all with him even after the final horn sounded. It was a good experience for the now 22-year-old who finally projects to be in the Flyers’ starting lineup when October rolls around.
“Ghost was amazing with me,” Morin said. “He talked with me a lot on the ice. All the guys were good with me. I just fit in good here.”
And the Flyers hope he fits in even better this year after another offseason of training and preparing for his long-term NHL chance. Morin, who has been eating big and working hard for his opportunity for what seems like even longer than four years, is a kid they’re counting on to make the jump.
With a pedigree that includes success in 200 games at the junior level and a successful development so far through 150 AHL contests and that one ever-so-important NHL debut, Morin isn’t coming into camp as some inexperienced teen that is going to fumble his way through camp and the early stages of the regular season.
Will there be a feeling out process once the real action begins? Surely. Morin wasn’t the steady pillar on the blueline that he has become for the Phantoms in his NHL debut and he knows that he needs to adjust to NHL life when the time does come.
However, with his time in the other levels of the organization logged and perhaps maximized, it definitely seems like it’s time that Morin gets his chance at life at the top. He’s a frontrunner to nab a roster spot alongside Robert Hagg, the defenseman drafted in the second round the same year Morin was selected that has also put more than his fair share of time in with the Phantoms (202 games).
The two will have to fight off two talented defensemen whose ceilings are higher, but résumés shorter.
Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers are also geared up and ready to prove their worth at camp, Sanheim after his first year with the Phantoms and Myers after his final season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. However, Morin and Hagg make up for their lack of top-pairing upside with their extensive experience within the organization and current NHL-readiness.
Players like Morin have seemingly fallen out of favor in the NHL to make way for the more skilled offensive-minded or two-way defensemen, but that’s also a little overblown. Sure, the Shayne Gostisbeheres and Ivan Provorovs of the world are the flashy fan favorites or the cornerstone pieces on the backend, but a massive and nasty physical presence in front of the net and in the corners can still go a long way.
It’s a lock that one of Morin and Hagg won’t be making the trip to Allentown as camp closes this fall and will instead stick around in Philadelphia. It’s actually likely that both of them do. But where does that leave the impressive 21-year-old Sanheim?
We will have to wait and see, but it also wouldn’t be a huge shock if they all impressed enough to force Hextall to keep three and send Brandon Manning or Andrew MacDonald to the AHL instead.. After all, we are entering by far the most aggressive season of the youth movement to date and if a kid is ready AND makes the team better with his presence, he has a good chance to stick around. I think Morin is a near-lock. Your thinking may differ when you put both him and Hagg in that category and, in turn, kind of block Sanheim out of the equation, but nothing is off the table.
Sanheim has also only played one season with the Phantoms and could return to the AHL affiliate for the time being without much consequence. Whichever of the three is sent down will surely be a top option to be recalled if and when the Flyers have to deal with an injury or long-term struggles with one of the other defensemen.
The Flyers have seen more than enough of Morin at the AHL level through 150 games. He has grown and developed to the point that he has been knighted ready for the next step by just about everyone that’s been asked the question. He made his NHL debut. Now it’s time for him to make his mark on this league.
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