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Flyers need to add proven defenseman, but Travis Sanheim’s strong season a bright spot | Sam Carchidi

You could make a strong case that the smooth-skating Sanheim is the Flyers’ most improved player, though Scott Laughton also deserves lots of consideration.

Travis Sanheim (left), in his first full NHL season, has become one of the Flyers' best defensemen,
Travis Sanheim (left), in his first full NHL season, has become one of the Flyers' best defensemen,Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Flyers fans are frustrated. There will be no playoffs for the fourth time in seven years. There’s going to be a significant decrease in points accumulated from last season, and there will be an increase in the cost of most 2019-20 season tickets.

But all is not doom and gloom. Despite the Flyers’ being one of just 15 teams to miss the playoffs, it was not a lost season.

In the Year of Eight Goalies, they found one who, though only 20, looks as if he will be the team’s backbone, and they learned that their young defense, which went through expected growing pains, is on the verge of being something special.

Oh, general manager Chuck Fletcher still needs a veteran to stabilize the back end. The development of defensemen Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers, however, was among the season's highlights, topped only by goalie Carter Hart's stunningly quick acclimation to the NHL.

You could make a strong case that the smooth-skating Sanheim is the Flyers’ most improved player, though Scott Laughton also deserves lots of consideration.

Ron Hextall took a bit of a risk when he made Sanheim the first draft pick of his general-manager tenure with the Flyers in 2014. He raised some eyebrows by selecting the skinny kid who grew up near Hextall’s hometown in Manitoba and was projected by most scouting experts to be picked much later.

Nearly five years later, in his first full season in the NHL, Sanheim has arguably become the Flyers’ best defenseman — justifying the fact he was the 17th overall pick in the 2014 draft at the Wells Fargo Center. (While Sanheim has worked out, Hextall and many other GMs overlooked right winger David Pastrnak, who was selected 25th overall by Boston and has scored 30-plus goals in each of the last three seasons.)

From here, Radko Gudas has been the Flyers’ most consistent defenseman this season, playing solidly from start to finish.

Ivan Provorov has been very good in the season’s second half, but he looked lost in the first two months.

That brings us to Sanheim, 23, who didn’t get nearly as much ice time until coach Dave Hakstol was replaced by interim coach Scott Gordon on Dec. 17. Under Gordon, Sanheim was permanently moved to the top pairing, alongside Provorov, and his minutes increased significantly.

With more responsibility, Sanheim has flourished. His defensive play has steadily improved, and he has learned when to pick his spots and join or lead the attack. He leads the Flyers defensemen with nine goals — it should have been 10, but his overtime tally Thursday against Toronto was erased by an errant early whistle — and has contributed 25 assists, surpassed only by four players on the entire team.

When he coached the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Gordon helped nurture Sanheim’s progression. The same has happened with the Flyers.

Gordon said that Sanheim always had the natural ability to excel, but that his game has matured greatly. His hockey IQ has increased, and he has a better understanding of when to join the rush and when it’s too risky.

Sanheim knows “when to go and when not to go. When to get in and when to get out — that’s the thing that’s really come a long way,” Gordon said. “… That’s one thing Travis didn’t do very well in the first two months at Lehigh. He would go in [the offensive zone] and stay in and wouldn’t get out. If the puck moved into the corner, instead of going back to the blue line and letting the forwards come in, he was going over to the other corner — or he was going to the net after it went to the blue line.

"That came with maturity and understanding that he’s not a forward. There will be opportunities when you do things that are part of the forwards’ attack, but the situations he’s doing it now are pretty close to flawless.”

It was a difficult transition, Gordon said, because when Sanheim played for Calgary’s junior team in the Western Hockey League, “he was given the green light to go and to stay” in the offensive zone.

Now, he has to pick his spots.

“It’s just on feel,” said Sanheim, who has an “even” plus-minus rating entering the weekend. “When there’s an opportunity to jump, I’m jumping. Some nights, you get that chance. Other nights, there are times I don’t even get that chance. It’s all in the read.”

In 2019-20, Sanheim will likely be split up from Provorov if the Flyers add a much-needed veteran to the defensive mix in the offseason. Whether Sanheim ends up paired with Myers, Gudas, or someone else, one thing is clear: If he keeps improving, he and the enigmatic Provorov have the ability to become the first defensemen drafted by the Flyers to be named an all-star for them since Behn Wilson in 1981.