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Playing with consistency in the Flyers’ disappointing season, Travis Sanheim shows what it means to be a leader

As the Flyers' top defenseman, Sanheim has led with his play — and his voice off the ice.

Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim has taken a step this season in both the defensive and offensive aspects of his game, all the while achieving a sense of consistency.
Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim has taken a step this season in both the defensive and offensive aspects of his game, all the while achieving a sense of consistency.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Early in the third period against the New York Rangers on April 3, defenseman Travis Sanheim showed in a span of 12 seconds the value he has as a two-way defenseman.

In the corner of the Flyers’ zone, Sanheim put pressure on 2020-21 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Adam Fox with his stick and his body. Fox changed directions with the puck and forced a pass to the slot, turning the puck over to winger Oskar Lindblom to initiate a Flyers transition rush.

Lindblom held the puck patiently at the red line, hitting the late-arriving Sanheim at the blue line with a pass. Sanheim stickhandled his way to the front of the net, forcing goalie Igor Shesterkin to honor him as a shooter before setting up forward Joel Farabee with a backhanded pass for a tap-in goal.

“That was pretty sweet,” winger Travis Konecny said of Sanheim’s assist. “Especially when it’s him, I make way of a bigger deal than it actually is just to mess with him. I mean, it was an unbelievable pass, but I think if there’s any reaction out there on video or anything, I was freaking out trying to just be an idiot to him.”

For Konecny, one of Sanheim’s closest friends on the team, Sanheim is so offensively gifted that he considers him to be “one of those defensemen that could play forward.” But over the course of his seven professional seasons between the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Flyers, Sanheim has rounded out his game, finding a balance between the offensive and defensive sides of his game.

Now, in his fourth full season with the Flyers after he was selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, Sanheim has emerged as one of the team’s most consistent defensemen. He’s tied for ninth in the league in five-on-five points among defenseman (27) while accumulating the sixth-most five-on-five minutes, according to Evolving-Hockey.

“When I first started here [as an assistant coach] in December, they were worried he was kind of too much go, go, go all the time,” Nick Schultz said of Sanheim. “And they kind of talked to him a little bit, just settle in and defend. Think about playing. You’re a defenseman. Think about defending first, playing from position, and you’ll get your spots and pick your spots.

“I think, for me, he’s done a better job of that and not like every time he’s on, he thinks he’s got to be a part of the offense. You’ve got to let it come to you.”

First few years ‘scary at times’

Growing up in Elkhorn, Manitoba, Sanheim was drawn to playing defense on his youth team. With just three defensemen on the roster, Sanheim enjoyed that he got to play nearly the entire game.

Even in his minor hockey days, Sanheim was relied upon to be offensive and skate the puck up the ice. With every jump Sanheim has made, from Junior A to major junior to the AHL to the NHL, he finds it takes time to feel comfortable adding the offensive side to his game.

“The harder part is when you make that jump to each level is making sure you’re solid defensively first and then kind of adding to the rest of your game,” Sanheim said. “So I think that’s kind of why it usually takes me a bit.”

When interim coach Mike Yeo became an assistant coach with the Flyers in the 2019-20 season, Sanheim was entering his third NHL season. As Yeo first became acquainted with Sanheim, he noted that the 23-year-old defenseman’s size, skating ability, and hockey sense were attributes any coach would love to work with.

Sanheim was coming off of his most productive season of his career to date, posting 35 points (nine goals, 26 assists) in 82 games. However, while the raw talent was there, Yeo felt that Sanheim needed to work on his consistency from night to night.

“To be a player at his level, to be an impactful player, to be a top defenseman, a top two-way defenseman, being consistent is more difficult because you have to be consistent offensively, you have to be consistent defensively,” Yeo said.

Sanheim found that as a young defenseman, the NHL was “overwhelming at times” going up against superstars night after night. Aside from the physical demands of the NHL schedule, Sanheim acknowledged the mental challenges the transition presented.

While battling with the Sidney Crosbys, Connor McDavids, Nathan MacKinnons, and Alex Ovechkins of the league, it took time and experience for Sanheim to understand that he was in the NHL for a reason and that he was just as capable of defending the stars as he was any other player.

“Those first few years were scary at times,” Sanheim said. “You overthink a lot of things. You make one mistake, it leads into another one and next thing you know, your head’s in a tough spot.”

Sanheim faced his most challenging season in 2020-21, in which it took him a little while to get going after the abbreviated offseason. Once the team began to struggle, going 6-10-1 in the month of March, Sanheim’s play began to dip, too.

Dating back to March 2, 2021, for the final 38 games of the season, Sanheim was minus-25, the lowest among Flyers defensemen. Going into the 2021-22 season, Sanheim set a goal that even if the team was playing poorly as a whole, Sanheim wouldn’t let his own game devolve.

“He’s always willing to work on stuff or open for coaching and wants to be coached, I think is a big thing,” Schultz said. “Some guys think they’ve got it figured out, where [for] him, I think he wants to continue to learn and get better, which is a really good asset to have.”

Game slowing down

For Yeo, Sanheim has reached the point in a defenseman’s career where the game starts to slow down. When a game is going well for a young defenseman, the pace of play feels slower. However, when the game isn’t going well and confidence is lacking, aspects of the game seem to occur fast — the forecheck stifles play faster and the defense has less time and space to sort things out.

In his fifth season in the NHL, Sanheim has managed to achieve a sense of consistency on a nightly basis, even when the team as a whole has struggled to a 24-43-11 record with four games remaining.

“Even though maybe your team’s not that sharp one night, he can go out and do something and get you back in the game or he can go out and do something and even just generate some momentum and raise the level of the rest of the group,” Yeo said. “And, for me, that’s leadership.”

This season, Sanheim leads Flyers defensemen with 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists), all of which have come at even strength. He’s also plus-10, a team high, and has only finished 19 games this season in the negative. Sanheim is averaging 22:55 of ice time a game, a career high by over a minute.

While Sanheim always has had a good stick, Schultz noticed that Sanheim is doing a better job at using his body, getting engaged, and being more aggressive. Additionally, Sanheim has improved at picking his spots offensively and making better decisions with the puck.

“I think I’m hanging on to the puck more, have a little bit more poise,” Sanheim said. “I think sometimes you take a second, make sure you make the right play or even skating with the puck, instead of just throwing it away at times. If you can put your teammates in a better position, I think offensively, it’s going to translate, that you’re going to have results.”

This season, Sanheim adjusted to playing with a new partner in Rasmus Ristolainen, who the Flyers acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason. When Sanheim met Ristolainen, he admitted that he was scared of the highly physical defenseman at first.

“Even in practice when he was hitting guys, and I was happy that he was my partner, and I didn’t have to go up against him,” Sanheim said.

With his heavy style of play, Ristolainen appeared to be the “perfect partner” for a defenseman with offensive instincts, according to Schultz. It took a little bit of time for the two to get acclimated, but Yeo saw early signs that their relationship was headed in the right direction — they were defending quicker and there was more communication between them.

Over the course of the season, Sanheim found that he and Ristolainen developed chemistry and complemented each other with their different styles of play. Ultimately, Yeo said that Ristolainen helped Sanheim get to his offensive game before he was injured and came out of the lineup after the Flyers’ April 12 game against the Washington Capitals.

“For a guy like Sandy, who has the skating ability to get up in the rush and to create offense, if he has a partner like Risto, who can go into the corner, can eliminate somebody, can get the, we call it a kill, where you kill the play, you create the turnover,” Yeo said. And now we can get on the attack. Now that net front D is in a great position to jump up ice.”

Together, the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Sanheim and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Ristolainen comprise a “big pair” that lend themselves to the “tough to play against” quality that the Flyers aspire to attain, per Schultz.

“You look at the teams that are really good right now, they have big, heavy defense that can skate and make a play and play hard and defend hard,” Schultz said. “I think it’s nice that those guys have that size and can play hard and play big minutes.”

Leading with play on the ice, voice off the ice

When center Kevin Hayes first met Sanheim, he struck him as a “pretty shy kid.” While Sanheim may not be the most outspoken player on the team, he has emerged as a leader this season in his own way.

“He’s definitely a leader on the ice in the way he plays,” Hayes said. “He’s not as vocal as other leaders, but the way he’s played this year, he’s probably been our most consistent D man all year and arguably our best D man all year.”

Sanheim has stepped up for the team this year, both on and off the ice. Dating back to the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020, Sanheim contacted NHLPA representative James van Riemsdyk frequently and told him that he wanted to be on every call regarding the return-to-play plan.

After van Riemsdyk’s tenure as NHLPA rep came to an end, he asked Sanheim to take over the position. Now, Sanheim and Konecny share the role, which has helped give Sanheim a reason to have a voice with the team.

“I think I feel more comfortable,” Sanheim said. “More comfortable in the locker room and speaking to guys and knowing that I’m getting older in this league, and that’s something that I’ve done in the past is have that leadership role. I want to be a leader, whether it’s on or off the ice.”

As the Flyers defensive corps has atrophied because of injuries in the final weeks of the season, Sanheim is one of just three veteran defensemen remaining alongside Ivan Provorov and Keith Yandle.

Now, Sanheim is setting the example for young Flyers defensemen like Ronnie Attard and Egor Zamula, all while striving to improve different aspects of his game and bringing strong two-way play every night.

“I just think that he has proven that he has the ability to take over games and when he does that, people follow him and people look up to him,” Konecny said. “I know that we have, especially right now, we have a young D corps where there’s a lot of parts moving in that are getting a first look.

“And Sanny is one of those guys that they look to. He’s always setting the tone on the ice and a defenseman that’s made his way up through the process and the minors and into the NHL and developed the right way. He’s done a great job.”

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