The Flyers reached a little off of the board to select Sanheim 17th overall, but doubts about the pick faded quickly when he came back to the WHL with a vengeance the next season.
Sanheim tallied 65 points in 67 games that year after recording just 29 points in 67 games the year prior. The foresight of the scouts and Hextall to nab Sanheim before he truly made a name for himself with the Calgary Hitmen helped them land a blue-chip blueliner in the system in the middle of the first round.
After playing two more post-draft seasons with the Hitmen before he jumped over to the professional ranks, Sanheim’s game and body matured before he even fought through training camp and joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. However, the difference in junior and professional hockey is distinct, and the defenseman needed some time to adjust.
“At the junior level I was able to do a lot of stuff I wasn’t able to do at the pro level,” Sanheim said via Adam Kimelman/NHL.com. “Jumping up in the play and getting caught around the net or getting too low. In junior I was able to get back and cover myself up lot more easily. [Here], you make mistakes and you get caught somewhere, you know it’s going to end up in the back of your net.”
Sanheim credits the Phantoms’ coaching staff for helping him learn from and correct those mistakes, although his own work ethic and willingness to grow and learn was just as important.
“I learned some valuable lessons in the first few weeks and went over a lot of video with the coaching staff. They were great to me,” Sanheim said. “They knew coming from junior there would be lessons to be had. They gave me the opportunities going forward and I took advantage of them throughout the season.”
Hextall points to the Hitmen counting on Sanheim to provide a heavy portion of the offensive load from the blueline as one of the biggest reasons why he had to make adjustments in his game. It’s common for a lot of players to have to learn how to play without the puck or be more conservative after spending most of their lives being able to just about anything they wanted with the puck on their stick.
“It wasn’t a slow start, but he needed a little more structure in his game,” Hextall said via NHL.com. “He was a little bit all over the map, which is what he was in Calgary because they didn’t have a real high-scoring team so he was up the ice a lot. It took him about a month, month and a half for him to kind of learn situations and when to go and when not to go. But he had a real good second half of the year and came a long way.”
From all accounts, it sounds like the 21-year-old has prepared himself to make a strong push towards a spot on the NHL roster. That includes physical maturity as well, as Sanheim has bulked up his frame since he was drafted as a lanky 18-year-old. He now weighs in at 205 pounds compared to his 181-pound frame on draft day. He isn’t done growing yet, though.
“Playing my first pro season, I felt comfortable going against anyone on the other side,” he said via NHL.com. “Still want to continue to get stronger, as do a lot of people. I think I’ve definitely put on a lot of weight, a lot of strength throughout the time I’ve been with the Flyers. I want to continue to keep doing it.”
Sanheim’s confidence from a successful first season in the pros, in which he had 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) in 76 games, will carry into training camp and potentially right into the NHL.
“I think just being relied upon down with them toward the end of the season and the playoffs, playing a regular role with the team, just makes me that much more confident going into camp. Knowing I can play at that level down there, hopefully that will translate to camp.”
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