Can Travis Sanheim Take A Leap Forward?

Can The Flyers' defensemen's performance exceed the expectations of his contract?
Apr 16, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim (6) during the national anthem against the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 16, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim (6) during the national anthem against the Washington Capitals at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers’ and Travis Sanheim’s 2023-2024 seasons mirrored each other in many ways. The team and Sanheim played at a level that exceeded expectations for much of the season. The team was winning and Sanheim was impacting the outcomes with a more assertive effort on offense. But after the trade deadline Sanheim and the team swooned, unable to take advantage of middling teams like Montreal, Chicago, and Columbus. It turned what was a pretty good season into one that was disappointing but with several blossoms of possibility, such as the future of Sanheim.

After nearly being traded to St. Louis for the offensive-minded Torey Krug, Sanheim led the team in minutes played, leading the team’s defensemen in scoring with 44 points which was fourth on the team overall. The issue with Sanheim has been his play in his defensive end, and the trend continued this year.

Sanheim’s plus/minus finished at -20, but in six games, two against the Devils, one against the Bruins, Kings, Avs, and Canes, Sanheim combined for a -18. The numbers show Sanhiem has staked a claim at the top end of second-tier defenders. It may not sound impressive or like a compliment, but it is a vast improvement from past years and allows us to ask if Sanheim can raise his game to that of a top-end player. There are reasons to think he can.

Travis Sanheim has room to further improve into a top-pair defenseman

The best case, but the least likely, to unlock the best of Sanheim is that a player or two emerge on defense to support him. After Walker was traded and Seeler was lost to injury, more workload fell on Sanheim. It was not so much that he was bad, but he seemed less dynamic, or as aggressive offensively as when Walker and Seeler were playing.

With Walker playing as well as he was, teams would have been tempted to try to negate him with their top defensive or forechecking units. Walker drew some of the focus away from Sanheim. When Seeler was playing, it gave John Tortorella an option other than Sanheim to try and shut down the opponents’ top line. Without Walker and Seeler, the answer to any situation was Sanheim, and it hindered him. Perhaps Egor Zamula, Jamie Drysdale, or Cam York can make a jump this season, offensively or defensively, that will allow Sanheim to take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

If the Flyers can’t get a giant developmental step from their current players, perhaps they can find a better partner for Sanheim. Finding the right partner can make all the difference. In the not-so-recent past, Ivan Provorov, with Victor Hedman and Dougie Hamilton, led NHL defensemen in goals. Provorov was a legitimate 1D. His best season was when he was paired with Matt Niskanen, giving the Flyers a true top pair. Once Niskanen retired, Provorov was saddled with Justin Braun. The pairing did not work and Provorov never regained his top form

Sanheim spent most of his minutes paired with York. While York showed moderate improvement, he and Sanheim have nearly identical defensive weaknesses and offensive skill sets that are not complimentary. Sanheim, at his best, is taking smart chances to join the rush and create scoring chances. The nature of that approach does leave the team vulnerable to odd-man rushes. He would benefit from someone with a better degree of defensive competence than York. It may give Sanheim the confidence to press the play and join the rush more often.

York, for his part, is a solid puck mover. His ability to quickly see and execute passes is the best part of his game. While a defensive stalwart would help York, finding someone who can read and execute passes at his level may be even more important. Having Sanheim as a partner, who is much slower in his decision making, negates much of the advantage that York’s passing brings. Do the Flyers’ have a player in the organization that could pair well with Sanheim? 

It is possible. Emil Andrae survived the physical AHL and should have a chance to make the NHL roster. Though Andrae’s skill set may be better paired with York. Adam Ginning is intriguing, but he is an RFA, though Danny Briere expects him to compete for a spot. Hunter McDonald is an interesting possibility. The sixth-round pick and former North Eastern Husky was noticeable on defense at this year’s Bean Pot, playing against NHL prospects like Cutter Gauthier and Macklin Celebrini. If Provorov was able to elevate his game because of his partner, Sanheim could as well.

While there are roster moves that may help tap the best of Sanheim, it may be the player himself that may finally unlock his potential.  Sanheim’s progression this year was mostly orchestrated by his efforts and growth.  In some regard, the Flyers’ forwards committing to defensive play made life easier on Sanheim, but there was little else in terms of help.

Sanheim has been trying to catch up physically to the NHL since he was drafted.  Could it be that his body has matured and strengthened enough that he is now a solid NHLer?  Could it be that he has gotten stronger and can now win the physical battles he used to lose?  Just a reminder, the Flyers GM Daniel Briere himself credited his career turnaround to getting his core strong enough to play in the NHL. Could it be that Sanhiem is on the cusp of crossing that divide?  If so, he may need to look no further than the mirror for who or what can turn him into a top-pair defenseman.

It may be wrong to expect Sanheim to take a giant leap forward, but after last season's growth, with so many headwinds, it is impossible to give up on the defensemen.