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Flyers prospect Sanheim earning rave reviews

Junior defenseman Travis Sanheim, a first-round pick last year, plays at a level above his rivals.

Travis Sanheim is wowing the Flyers for his play with the Hitmen. (Brad Watson/Calgary Hitmen)
Travis Sanheim is wowing the Flyers for his play with the Hitmen. (Brad Watson/Calgary Hitmen)Read moreBrad Watson / Calgary Hitmen

CALGARY - Former Flames general manager Craig Button created quite a stir 3 weeks ago with his bold declaration:

"Travis Sanheim is a slam-dunk pick," Button said on air at TSN in Canada. "I think he's the best 1996 [born] defenseman in the world."

It was particularly tall praise for the Flyers' prospect, considering Florida's No. 1 overall pick, Aaron Ekblad - who has 35 points, plays 22 minutes a night and is the NHL rookie of the year favorite - was also born that year.

Maybe Button forgot about Ekblad, since he's playing on another planet.

Watching Sanheim magically float on the blue line at the Saddledome last week for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen, though, it's hard not to be captivated by the Flyers' first-rounder from last June.

Sanheim, a lefthanded shooter who turns 19 on Sunday, already plays at a cognitive level above his junior counterparts.

To see him grab a clearing attempt off the boards, walk the blue line to his left, wheel effortlessly around the horn of the Hitmen power play and yank the puck back on a string on a shot attempt to find a better seam to the net is purely a work of art. Sanheim does that without thinking, dipping in and out of the rush to create scoring chances.

His coach, Mark French, who led the AHL's Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup in 2010, called it a "God-given talent that allows him to be a dynamic player that's a difference-maker."

"His game wasn't perfect tonight, but he finds a way to step up when the game is at its biggest moments," French said. "He doesn't shrink away from those moments."

In this particular game against Red Deer, Sanheim made a strong head-man pass to assist on the Hitmen's first goal, then scored a third-period, go-ahead goal in an end-to-end rush on a night that helped determine playoff seeding for his team.

On Sunday, the game-winner boomed off his stick against Kootenay to clinch a Central Division championship for Calgary, hours after Sanheim was named the Hitmen's defenseman of the year. Sanheim led all WHL defensemen in the regular season with 65 points in 67 games.

His rise is a meteoric one, from unknown Manitoba midget player 18 months ago to late-charging first-round pick, to silky 6-5 prospect who toe-drags through players with ease.

"It's been interesting to watch a guy who came off the radar, probably played with minimal pressure last year," French said. "Everything he did was probably unexpected, and you ride that momentum. It's funny after you get drafted, especially as a first-rounder, how you carry the weight of expectations. I think some guys really struggle with that.

"It's a testament to his character to take his game to another level, rather than buckle under the pressure of what people thought he could become."

Some scouts say that if there had been another month in last year's WHL slate, Sanheim would have been off the board long before the Flyers picked at 17. He was ranked 167th among North American skaters by the NHL's Central Scouting service at the midpoint last year. Sanheim finished 53rd.

On the advice of Alberta-based scout Mark Greig, the Flyers were sold on Sanheim's potential. He could end up being one of the steals of the first round.

In January, Button ranked the NHL's top 30 drafted prospects. Sanheim came in 10th, second on defense only to Winnipeg's Josh Morrissey, who is a year older. Fellow Flyers first-round pick Samuel Morin, also a year older, ranked 14th and Phantoms defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was 19th. The Flyers and Lightning were the only two teams with three players in the top 30.

"His game has grown by leaps and bounds from a couple years ago," said Joel Otto, a Hitmen assistant coach, who moved back to Calgary after retiring with the Flyers in 1998. "I think he's always had this ability, but I think confidence is a big thing. He realized he can play in this league and he's turned a lot of heads.

"His instincts are unquestionably tops in the WHL. His potential is unlimited."

Otto said that when Flyers general manager Ron Hextall came to watch Sanheim earlier this season, Hextall quipped, "Somebody get this kid some protein." Otto and the Hitmen aren't even sure whether Sanheim, his face still dotted with teenage acne, is done growing.

Sanheim checked into Flyers training camp in September at 180 pounds. He is up to 190, even after a full season of hockey, when most are lucky to maintain weight. He finds time to hit the gym on his own, like during a recent 17-day road trip zigzagging through western Canada.

"It's not always easy to fit it in," French said. "He's got some direction from the Flyers of what he needs to do, but he's doing it on his own."

The Hitmen are one of only two major junior teams in North America to share a building with an NHL team, Edmonton being the other. That enabled Sanheim to visit with Flyers brass last week - and even stop in at their morning skate the next day. Sanheim says he will regularly find a spot in the stands to watch morning skates at the Saddledome for a variety of teams in the league. He is eager to learn.

Flyers development coaches Kjell Samuelsson and John Riley have been out to visit him more than four times already this season. They'll watch video, break down his shifts, give him tips, then take him and fellow Flyers prospect Radel Fazleev to dinner.

"The biggest thing with me is I know I've got the offensive game to play at the next level," Sanheim said. "The thing that's going to stop me the most is my defensive play. It's something that I really need to focus on to get to the next level. I've been playing against top guys, playing penalty kill, but, at some point, you've got to put in the work and show results."

Sanheim's game still has warts in some areas. There are teaching points. For instance, after Sanheim scored the go-ahead goal in the third period last Wednesday, Red Deer's Riley Sheen snuck behind him at the net and sent the game to overtime.

"That was definitely my fault on that play," Sanheim acknowledged. "I thought I had the guy behind me. I think I could've just gotten ahold of that [puck rimming around the board behind the net], it would've been a different story."

Scouts call that "defensive awareness," something Sanheim is keying on. He also was blown by on a few rushes at the blue line. He still isn't strong enough to win every board battle, sometimes outmuscled by the opposition.

"When he's focused, he's not a defensive liability at all," said French, who coached in Russia's KHL last year. "His feet are so good that he gets a lot of stops early because he can close. I think that's when he's at his best, because he's like any offensive 'D-man,' he thinks on the other side of the puck a lot. I think he's capable of defending. He's got a lot of courage on the boards. But he's always looking for that opportunity to jump.

"His game management is getting better. I think he has a better understanding; he's jumping at the right time, but not all the time. I think he's realizing he's only going to have so much energy to join the rush."

Sanheim said the biggest blow to his season was being one of the final cuts on Canada's world junior team. Morin made that team, but rarely saw the ice in the third period of Canada's gold-medal win over Russia.

Most 18-year-olds would have been thrilled to get invited to Canada's opening camp for the Under-20 tournament. Sanheim was originally "heartbroken" he was cut, especially since this year's tournament was in Toronto. Then he was peeved - a quality French says exemplifies his leadership.

"We got the sense Team Canada thought they had other guys ahead of him," French said. "We were thinking training camp might be a nice feather in his cap. I thought he'd be happy with the experience, but he came back with a little chip on his shoulder."

One thing that kept Sanheim grounded was the presence of his twin brother, Taylor, who gutted out a roster spot on the Hitmen with a comparatively limited skill set. Travis is also nearly 5 inches taller.

The Elkhorn, Manitoba (population: 461), boys rely on each other - both on and off the ice. Their town, a Trans-Canada Highway respite straddling the Saskatchewan border, is smack in the middle of a 90-minute drive to either Brandon or Regina to then hop a flight to Calgary.

Kent and Shelly Sanheim don't mind the commute to see their sons - and they were in Calgary for last week's Flyers game.

"If they're not here, they're definitely watching. They're really supportive of both of us," Travis Sanheim said. "Every second weekend, they both have their weekends off, they try coming out as much as they can. It was hard being away from my family [last year]. Not only that, but I've played with [Taylor] my whole life. We know that we're better together. Even in this game, he spun around and found me with a backhand pass. He just kind of knows where I am."

Sanheim plans to train in Brandon, Manitoba, again this summer - but is open to input from the Flyers. He is already under contract, heading back to Calgary last fall with a nice signing bonus in his pocket.

The Flyers may indeed have a roster spot or two open. Sanheim watched the mark Morin left on training camp last fall, one of the final cuts. He already appears to be ahead of Morin in development, though it's impossible to compare with such different playing styles.

While Sanheim said he "won't be mad" if he gets sent back to Calgary, his clear and stated goal is an NHL job in September. Consider his pending playoff run an early declaration of combat.

"I think he'll force the Flyers into a hard decision," French said. "I'm sure they have their philosophy on how they want to develop their guys. There'd still be a lot to do next year, including an opportunity to be a real big player on that World Junior team. What next year holds, I'm not sure. I think it will be real interesting. It's just a matter of time before he's at that level."