The future of the Philadelphia Flyers defense is here.
Well, kind of.
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are in the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and they’ve been powered by a solid mixed group of veterans as well as some young guns. The Phantoms finished the regular season with the fourth-best points percentage in the league. However, due to the playoff format they will matchup against the seventh-best team in terms of points percentage in the league, the rivaled Hershey Bears.
The Calder Cup Playoffs will give the Phantoms a chance to showcase the future of the Flyers defense.
Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim have all made significant strides with the Phantoms this season and over the past few seasons, but they have been in the background a bit with the Flyers’ schedule overlapping theirs.
Now, with the Flyers missing the playoffs and the Phantoms riding into the postseason on a hot streak, the spotlight shifts to the boys in Lehigh Valley.
Morin and Hagg made their NHL debuts this month, and Sanheim is right behind them. Ron Hextall has said that there will be room for two rookies on the Flyers’ blue line next season, and these three will be vying for those roster spots.
- 2013 1st Round Pick (11th overall)
- 74 games, 3 goals, 13 assists, 129 PIM, +0
- NHL Debut: April 4th – 17:47 TOI, 2 shots, 7 hits,
Sam Morin has developed slowly but surely with the Phantoms. The big defenseman who some deemed as “The Next Chris Pronger” simply due to his size and draft slot has come a long way since his draft year.
Morin developed his game at the junior ranks with Rimouski Oceanic in 2013-14 and 2014-15 before transferring to the professional game last season. It was a rough transition for the big defenseman, and some people seemed to get impatient with the 2013 first round pick. Perhaps it was a poor pick in hindsight at the 11th slot, but Ron Hextall took over a few years ago and has continued his patient approach with Morin, and all of the Flyers prospects.
He transitioned to the speed of the professional game last season before making big strides this season. Paired with fellow prospect Travis Sanheim, Morin quickly showed signs of development and growth in his game throughout the season.
Hextall is impressed with Morin’s improvement as well.
“He understands more than ever what his game is. I remember seeing him back in junior, and he was on the power play. Sam knows what he is as a player and he’s done a really good job of working hard, getting better every day.”
Morin made his NHL debut earlier this month and you can expect to see him fight for a spot on the roster coming out of training camp in the fall. The organization’s decision to bring him up for a game this season shows their confidence in him that he may be more NHL-ready than other prospects in the same spot.
Look for Morin to play a big role for the Phantoms this postseason and expect that same level of play and intensity come September.
- 2013 2nd Round Pick (41 Overall)
- 58 games, 7 goals, 8 assists, 48 PIM, +10
- NHL Debut: April 9th – 21:19 TOI, 5 shots, 4 hits, 3 blocks
Like Sam Morin, Robert Hagg has had a slow, methodical development through the minor ranks. It feels like he has been in the Flyers organization forever, but Hagg is still just 22 years old. He has risen up the rankings on the Flyers’ prospect lists over the past few months, culminating with his NHL debut a few weeks ago.
Hagg doesn’t have the overhulking frame like Morin, or flash like Shayne Gostisbehere, but Hagg provides a solid two-way game. He keeps it simple on the ice and takes what comes to him. He finally hit his stride in his third full season with the Phantoms this year. He finished the season with a positive plus-minus (+10) after two seasons well into the negatives (-12, -11).
Hextall and the Flyers showed their confidence in him, like with Morin, to call him up at the end of the season for his NHL debut.
“Robert’s progression has been really, really impressive,” Hextall said. “He came over as a 19-year old, played up in Glens Falls in the American League and, at age 19, held his own. As a 20 year old he was not bad. And this year he’s taken it to another level. He’s an all-situation, very dependable, player.
Hagg has gone from the forgotten defensive prospect to a reliable AHL defenseman that should be able to make a smooth transition to the NHL next season.
- 2014 1st Round Pick (17th Overall)
- 76 games, 10 goals, 27 assists, 46 PIM, +7
- NHL Arrival: 2017-18 season
While Hagg and Morin (both products of the 2013 NHL Draft) made their NHL debuts this month, Sanheim stayed in Lehigh Valley for his first professional season. Sanheim was only one of two Phantoms players (T.J. Brennan) to play in all 76 games this year.
The 2013 draft products are more NHL-ready right now, but there is no doubt that Travis Sanheim has the highest ceiling of the defensive prospects. Sanheim was the undisputed number one prospect in the system prior to the 2015 NHL Draft. Ivan Provorov quickly took over that role and lived up to expectations in a great rookie season. However, that shouldn’t take anything away from Sanheim.
Sanheim’s offensive numbers in the AHL weren’t as impressive as his junior stats, but that comes with the territory. It takes a while to get used to the speed of the game, and while some defensemen may need a few years (like Hagg), Sanheim seemed to grow a lot as the season moved along.
We got a good look at Sanheim last September and October during training camp and deep into the preseason, but he has yet to don the orange and black in an NHL game. He is in the group of defensemen, along with Hagg and Morin, who will be in a battle for a few roster spots on the Flyers’ blue line come September. He may not have the experience, but he has the highest ceiling and a good showing here could go a long way for the 2014 draft pick.
The Phantoms will also be joined by undrafted free agent Philippe Myers as well as 2016 2nd round pick goalie Carter Hart. Both players just recently ended their junior seasons this week and will get valuable professional experience this Spring.
Myers could be vying for a roster spot on the Flyers next season, but it’s more likely that they remain patient with him and he begins his professional career with the Phantoms in September. Hart is a bit of an emergency callup with Stolarz out, but he could sit the bench or even just gain the experience of practicing with, and getting the exposure of the speed of the professional game.
The best-of-five series between the Phantoms and Bears kicks off tonight at the PPL Center.
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