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Can Travis Sanheim be the Top Defenseman the Flyers Have Been Searching For?

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

Homegrown defensemen have eluded the Philadelphia Flyers for decades and that issue can arguably be just as damning as their goaltending carousel, especially in the last decade and a half.

It’s not for a lack of trying as the Flyers used valuable draft capital in the mid-2010s to address their blue line in Samuel Morin, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hägg. They had also drafted Shayne Gostisbehere in the third round and signed undrafted rookie Phil Myers who rose up the ranks almost immediately.

Moreover, they tried addressing that issue well before Morin was drafted when they acquired Kimmo Timonen from the Nashville Predators, Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks, and Mark Streit from the New York Islanders. With Pronger and Timonen leading the way, the Flyers made a trip to the Stanley Cup Final but could never climb those lofty heights after Pronger went down with a career-ending injury. Streit and Timonen were both dependable top-4 defensemen but were shells of their former selves by the end of their tenures after sustaining grave injuries.

Unfortunately, the Flyers’ attempts to rectify their mistakes by building through the draft didn’t go over too well. Morin could never overcome the injury bug, Hägg had a few good seasons but became a depth option near the end of his tenure, Myers had a great rookie campaign but fell off the following season, the Flyers attempted to change Gostisbehere’s role to no avail, and Provorov had his moments as the anchor but could never take that much-needed leap.

That leaves us with Sanheim, who has been the best of the bunch, but that’s not really saying much, is it?

Realizing that Provorov needed help, the Flyers made a few attempts to solve their dilemma but it ever worked out for one reason or another. Matt Niskanen brought out the best from Provorov but retired after just one season, Justin Braun looked good alongside the Russian for a little but but was nothing more than a dependable bottom-pair defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen was no longer a minute-munching defenseman, and the Tony DeAngelo trade ended in disaster.

Since then, the organization has either added depth veteran defensemen or have utilized their youngster and prospects.

Sanheim has been a staple since his rookie season in 2017-18 but he has taken the organization on a roller coaster ride of inconsistency, with one down season followed by a great season.

In his rookie year he scored 2 goals and 19 points in 49 games and then followed that up with 9 goals and 35 points in a full 82-game slate. 2019-20 was a so-so year as he entered the COVID pause with 8 goals and 25 points in 69 games but then came back in 2020-21 looking like a shell of his former self with just 15 points in 55 games and holding a minus-22 rating.

He bounced back in a big way in 2021-22 but only after Alain Vigneault was fired. He had 0 goals and 3 assists in 22 games with Vigneault behind the bench before chipping in with 7 goals and 28 points in his next 52 games under interim head coach Mike Yeo. For his efforts, Sanheim won the Barry Ashbee Trophy awarded to the best defensemen on the team.

Chuck Fletcher and the Flyers’ brass were so impressed by his second half of the season that they rewarded the then-26-year-old with an 8-year contract extension worth $50 million just a few hours before puck drop on Opening Night. With the pressure and rigours of a hefty contract potentially hanging over Sanheim, he struggled mightily in John Tortorella’s first season as the bench boss with just 23 points in 81 games and his ATOI dropped 2.5 minutes.

The roller coaster ride continued as he turned back the clock on a terrible 2022-23 season with a formidable career year in 2023-24. He scored 10 goals and 34 assists in 81 games, recorded 9 even strength tallies, 5 power play points, 146 shots on goal, 149 blocked shots, 94 hits, 37 takeaways, and 23:48 ATOI. All of which were career highs.

He saw 124 minutes on the power play which blew out his previous highs, his 218.9 minutes while shorthanded topped last year’s total of 147.4, and his even strength CF% and FF% returned to over 50% for the first time since 2020-21.

He started off the season at a blistering pace after scoring 25 points in his first 34 games while averaging 24:59 TOI. He was an all-situations, two-way force on the back-end and Tortorella rode the momentum for as long as he could. He went through a little bit of a dry spell in the next 17 games where he only tallied 2 assists, was -8, and his ATOI dropped nearly 3 minutes a game.

After being called out by his head coach to be more aggressive and to return to his natural game, Sanheim did just that by finishing the season with 6 goals and 17 points in 28 games, was -4, and his ATOI increased to 23:17. He was more visible, electric, and was one of the few players who stood out – for good reason – during their epic collapse at the end of the year.

Paired up with Cam York for most of the second half, Sanheim flourished and it seems like they finally have their top pairing for the future – or at least for 2024-25. They both complement each other’s games very well, they are both smooth silky skaters, two-way forces, and have a good rapport of where one another is one the ice at all times. They failed Provorov for several years in trying to find his partner in crime but at the very least it seems like they found the yin yang for their top-2 defensemen.

Sanheim was awarded the Barry Ashbee Trophy for the second time in his career and while we can sit back and comfortably say he had a great season, it’s almost imperative that he takes that much-needed leap next season. Apart from York, there are a myriad of question marks on defence including the availabilities of oft-injured defensemen Jamie Drysdale and Rasmus Ristolainen, and who rounds out the top-6 – whether that’s in-house or through acquisitions.

If the Flyers are going to make any in-roads next season, they’re going to need Sanheim to play at the same level as he did in 2023-24 as a worst case scenario. Nick Seeler is a dependable shot blocking penalty killer, the youngsters need to prove their worth, and both Drysdale and Ristolainen have a lot of pressure riding on their 2024-25 campaigns. That doesn’t leave much room for error for either Sanheim or York.

He seemed to acclimate to Tortorella and Brad Shaw’s system a lot better this past season and he didn’t look out of place playing 24-26 minutes a night when the Flyers were gutting their way through a playoff race. He has the offensive instincts and acumen to perform at even strength and on the power play and he has shored up a lot of his defensive deficiencies in recent memory. CapFriendly’s scouting report on Sanheim had him at an 86 this past season – a 23 point improvement from 2022-23 – and have him projected as a “second pair defenseman”:

“2-way ‘D’ who is being used in all situations for the Flyers. Top pairing in Philly. Lands somewhere between first and second pairing on most teams in the league.
Skates heavy minutes – averaging around 25:00 TOI per game.
Matches up against top lines.
Tall. Lean. Some push back physically but not overpowering.
Uses his long reach as an asset.
Good skater. Has the legs to join the rush as an extra layer. Leans distributor on the PP more than shooter. There are some uneven nights defensively, but when a player logs the kind of ice time he does there are bound to be some mistakes at times.”

With a full season alongside York, expect Sanheim to have a bigger 2024-25 season and potentially cement himself as one of the better homegrown defensemen in Flyers history. It’s not a lengthy list nor is it an exquisite one, but it’s the best of a bad situation and the Flyers desperately need a solution to an ongoing dilemma that at one point seemed almost unsolvable.

Flyers fan born in the heart of Leafs nation

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