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Amid Flyers’ tumultuous start, Travis Sanheim offers glimpse of his potential

Twelve months after his rocky rookie start, the Flyers' second-year defenseman is playing with poise.

Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim skating with the puck against the Avalanche.
Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim skating with the puck against the Avalanche.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

He is a silver lining inside the dark clouds surrounding the Flyers' start.

One year after being promoted, demoted, and even benched, Travis Sanheim is playing the way the Flyers brass always thought he would play: creating offense, breaking up plays at mid-ice, tracking smartly in his own zone, knowing when to go and when not to go.

"I see it in all three zones,'' Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said the other day. "I think it goes hand in hand in terms of play with the puck coming out of the zone. Coming up ice in the offensive zone, as well as that feel for making plays in the offensive zone. It's not just one area of the ice.''

Sanheim, 22, is one of five Flyers defensemen with at least five points this season. With two shots in Tuesday's 3-2 victory in Anaheim, he has recorded 18 shots on net — slightly more than half the number Shayne Gostisbehere has (33).

Sanheim is minus-1 for a Flyers team (5-7-0) that has surrendered 48 goals this season, an average of four goals per game. Both are at or near the top for league worsts.

The second-year player is among the least culpable. Of course he's also logging the minutes of a third-line defenseman — a little more than 16 minutes per game, fewer than four other Flyers defensemen.

"Everybody is a little different as to what they can handle,'' Hakstol said. "We don't want the weight of the world on Travis' shoulders. Just a clear expectation as to the level of play that he's able to bring and how much he's able to help our team and to bring that every single time he's on the ice.''

Still, his current partner, Radko Gudas,  whose rocky finish to last season — culminating in a mistake-filled Game 6 against Pittsburgh — left him clearly in disfavor among Flyers fans, is playing confidently again and leads all Flyers defensemen with a plus-4.

That reflects not only better play and better choices by Gudas but by Sanheim, as well.

"I'm a lot more familiar with the effort needed to play every night in the NHL,'' Sanheim said. "What I need to bring every night and where I need to play. You learn so much over the course of the season, especially my first year, finding ways that will work for me to be successful. I'm still learning to this day and getting better every day. But I think from 12 months ago, there just has been so much to learn.''

Like when to eat, when to sleep. How much of each is needed, and the quality needed.

Like when to jump into the play, and when to play it safe. Especially over the first half of last season, Sanheim was burned by poor decisions and, then, indecision.

That improved by year's end, but sometimes at the cost of assertive play.

"You make a mistake in this league, it usually ends up with a great scoring chance or it ends up in the back of your net,'' Sanheim said. "So I think this year I'm more aware of when I'm able to jump. And now it's kind of just instincts. I've got that instinct to be able to jump in offensively. The best way for me to play and be successful is to just let my instincts kick in and do what I do best.''

Point production, a staple of his game at other levels, shrank. And try as he did to chalk it up to his age and lack of experience, it wore on him.

"I don't know if it bothered me,'' he said. "But it was unusual. Throughout my career, I've always been a points guy. To have that year where you're focusing on the defensive side and making sure you're always on the right side, those things weren't necessarily there.

"One thing I learned in the American League when I was struggling there is that sometimes the best offense is good defense. … I think I'm really starting to get that, that for me to be successful, I've got to really key in on my defensive game.''

Sanheim is still nowhere near a finished product. His seven giveaways, including two in just 14 minutes, 10 seconds Tuesday against a "heavy'' Anaheim team, gives him seven in his first 12 games. But he finished with 36 over the 49 games he played in last season, and a bulk of those came during his trying first half.

He also has already accumulated half his point total from last season, with five assists and no goals. Evidenced by Sanheim's increased use on the power play, Hakstol's trust in him is clearly growing.

And so is his confidence.

"I believe the biggest difference in Travis over the last 12 months is his ability to handle rough patches,'' Hakstol said. "And the highs, too. It's maturity. When things don't go well, you have to have the inner confidence to yourself. You have to have the ability to push back and to push your game back to your level."

"I think I'm just starting to figure out the little things I need to do to be successful,'' Sanheim said. "So if I'm just figuring that out now, I think there's more to come.''