The Travis Sanheim conundrum has been one of the biggest storylines around the Philadelphia Flyers since January. Everyone knows that the Flyers benefit from having a highly-talented prospect in their everyday lineup, but different beliefs in whether Sanheim was reaching his full potential playing bottom-pair minutes was always the big story.
Hextall knew that he needed one of his highest-upside pieces to play important, top-pair minutes to continue to grow and gain confidence. So Sanheim was sent back to Lehigh Valley and dominated the AHL, earning a call-up Friday evening under emergency conditions. With Robert Hägg out for two weeks with a lower-body injury, Sanheim has another opportunity to audition and prove that he’s ready to be in the Flyers lineup for the remainder of this season and into the playoffs. If his play on Saturday was any indication on whether he belongs, then Flyers fans should be ready to see Sanheim in the lineup until mid-April and beyond.
Sanheim spent the entire game paired next to Andrew MacDonald, who scored the eventual game-winning goal. Sanheim was allowed to play a more confident game, while MacDonald was more of a stay-at-home defender in this one.
When asked about how his new parter played in comparison to his previous games this season, MacDonald spoke highly of Sanheim.
“I thought he was great, right from the first shift he was aggressive,” MacDonald said after the win. “He made some really nice stick plays in the neutral zone and broke up some plays. Sent their guys in on great transition plays, I think he made that nice stretch pass from behind our net right away and you could tell he was feeling comfortable and confident and I said earlier that’s a heck of a way to come back in. it’s not an easy situation that we lost the last five to be put into a situation like that but I think throughout the game he did a tremendous job and was really strong.”
Sanheim unleashed a great breakout stretch pass earlier in the game and really set the tone for his afternoon.
“I think he just seems confident,” MacDonald continued. “I think he had a lot of playing time in Lehigh and you could tell he felt good today making plays and stepping up with his stick, skating really well and it was great to see him, we’re going to need him.”
Sanheim talked about playing with MacDonald and how his presence actually helped him ease into his style of game, giving him a comfortable confidence easing back into the lineup.
“Playing with Macker [MacDonald] gave me a lot of confidence,” Sanheim said. “We communicated pretty well and I felt good. There were definitely some nerves. I was just excited to be back with this group, it felt so familiar. Spending half a year here with the guys, it didn’t take long to adjust.”
That confidence allowed Sanheim to make solid plays in the neutral zone that allowed him to break up potential rushes from a Winnipeg squad that came in as a top-5 scoring team in the NHL. Sanheim’s style of play on the defensive end is similar to that of an early Shayne Gostisbehere, where each player wanted to break up the play with his stick before an outlet or additional pass could be made on zone entries. That’s why you saw a lot of strong neutral zone coverage from Sanheim against the Jets.
“I think having a good gap and having a good stick and being aggressive when the right circumstances come,” Sanheim continued. “Tonight I broke up a few plays and then turned it and went the other way. I want to continue to keep that in my game.”
The biggest issue of the season, and maybe head coach Dave Hakstol’s career in the NHL, has been his over reliance on his veterans – like Brandon Manning, Dale Weise, Jori Lehtera, Radko Gudas, and Andrew MacDonald. Hakstol, being like any average coach in the NHL, is going to rely on guys who have the experience of being beaten and maybe learning from that to try and not make the mistake again. Coming from a college background, Hakstol was asked to help get young players to think the best of themselves, grow confidently, and eventually develop into full-time NHLers. Whether his work with Sanheim may be more on the skilled defenseman and his individual growth, Hakstol’s message has resonated with him.
The coach even had a resounding compliment for young defenseman and his upside with this team moving forward.
“He [Sanheim] just looked like a guy who got his game back a little bit and that’s the benefit of being able to go down and play strong minutes down there in different situations,” Hakstol said following the win. “That’s all a credit to him. It’s all how you handle the assignment going back there. He dug in immediately from what I am told from day one and played extremely well right from the start down there. Like I said it just looks like a guy who absolutely has his game back. He is a good player for us tonight and he helped us win.”
Did Sanheim think the demotion was important for his growth and confidence?
“I think going down there gives me the confidence of playing a lot of minutes down there and coming back up,” he said. “Just knowing that I can play at this level and not having to worry about it that early on.”
Sanheim and the Flyers return to action on Monday as they host the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time in franchise history. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center.
(Photo by Fourth String / Sons of Penn)
Be sure to follow Sons of Penn on Twitter and Facebook for analysis, insight, GIFs and more regarding your Philadelphia Flyers
Sons of Penn Radio