Travis Sanheim spent over a month in the Philadelphia Flyers’ press box for all but one game. Despite starting the season with the Flyers, the rookie defenseman found himself on the outside looking in. He sat in favor of players like Brandon Manning and the surprisingly-strong Andrew MacDonald. So in late January, Ron Hextall made the decision to send Sanheim down to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to get playing time and refine his game.
It has worked beautifully.
Through 18 games, Sanheim has steadied himself at just under a point per game pace. He has 16 points, with 15 of them coming from assists. In 35 NHL games, he only recorded five points. However, for Sanheim the concern has never been about his offensive prowess. We all know what he can do with the puck on his stick and in the offensive zone. He’s been gifted with a shot that comes off his blade quicker than many forwards, and his ability to join the rush is very impressive.
The concern has always been about his defensive game. And it’s improved since going down to Lehigh Valley.
Midway through the first period against the Hershey Bears on Sunday, Sanheim joined the rush and shot a puck on net for a rebound. Sanheim continued skating behind the net, and instead of staying down low for too long in the slot, he continued skating back to the point. He could’ve easily stayed in the slot in attempt to get another rebound or receive a pass, but he skated back to the line to be in position defensively.
Sanheim has improved in the defensive zone as well. On a delayed penalty with the Phantoms needing to touch the puck for the whistle, Sanheim did his part in recapturing possession when Zach Sill skated into the zone on the left wing. Sanheim took him on an angle, cutting down his chances of driving in the middle. Sill was caught and tried to skate by Sanheim on the boards, but Sanheim took him out of the play, allowing his teammates to eventually take control of the puck.
Another time when the puck was in the defensive zone Greg Carey was stuck in the left corner with the puck and Sanheim came over to assist him. Carey kicked the puck to Sanheim, and Sanheim exited the zone and drove into the offensive zone. It’s little things like these few plays that show off his improving defensive ability.
Playing in the NHL has made it easier for Sanheim to play with the Phantoms, even if head coach Scott Gordon won’t say that explicitly.
“He’s got a little more time and he’s been using that time well,” Gordon said. “He’s been much better this year of not forcing the offense. He’s been so much more effective of passing and going versus trying to carry the puck up the ice the whole way himself.”
Gordon added, “I think that experience of practicing everyday with the NHL players advanced his progress.”
However, there are still some lapses in his game that he needs to work on.
On a Bears’ power play, Wayne Simpson was the trailer on a rush that would eventually end with him scoring a goal. Sanheim was skating towards the net to take away a possible cross-crease pass, but his skates were very far apart and he didn’t realize Simpson coming behind him. Sanheim tried to take away Tim McGauley’s pass, but the puck slid right between his skates, and the spinning Sanheim couldn’t recollect himself before the puck went by John Muse and into the net.
It’s things like that, where defensive awareness comes into play, that he needs to work on. Sometimes, he’ll forecheck for too long, leaving his defensive point open. Other times he won’t put his stick down on the ice in the defensive slot. He’s improving though, and for him to become an NHL player soon, he’ll need to keep learning. With learning comes mistakes, and defensive mistakes are becoming less and less frequent for the young defenseman.
Sanheim learned a lot from his time in the NHL, and his mindset shows it. After the game he said, “I think it’s just coming down with the right mindset, being able to work hard, improve on all the areas of my game, and not letting the demotion, I guess you could say, affect me mentally.”
When asked about what he thinks he needs to work on, Sanheim answered with being able to make decisions quicker and being hard to play against.
Travis Sanheim is certainly succeeding in both of those ways and more. With an offensive upside that has no limits and a defensive side that is getting stronger every passing game, he is doing all the things he needs to be doing if he is to stick in the NHL.
Will he make the Flyers next year?
I’d be shocked if he didn’t.
Photo by Casey Liberatore/Sons of Penn