It seems eons ago that the future of the Flyers defense was upon us. Travis Sanheim looked terrific carrying the puck in exhibition games. The 6-foot-6 Samuel Morin was hitting guys so hard that the boards amplified like those wrestling floors with microphones placed strategically beneath them.
Philippe Myers? Well, he might have to play with the Phantoms for a few months with that steady but unspectacular Robert Hagg, but given his arc of improvement and the excitement about his potential from those outside the organization, it wouldn’t be long.
I mean, you can’t have an entire defense corps made up of rookies.
Well as we all know now, the answer is no. and it seems we were a little bit wrong about that Hagg fella, and how little he brought to the table compared with the other three. Sent down to start the season, Morin has battled groin injuries and is still on the shelf. The 6-foot-5 Myers has also missed 17 games with groin problems, although his performance over the last month or so since regaining his health has renewed the enthusiasm about the smooth-skating 21-year-old.
And Sanheim? Well he’s been the latest lightning rod over how third-year Flyers coach Dave Hakstol handles young players, particularly rookies. When Travis Konecny wasn’t scoring, and was getting fourth-line minutes, it was the coach’s fault. He was afraid to make a mistake, or so the argument went, ignoring the very obvious miscues he made defensively even with limited minutes.
The alternative narrative now is that Konecny emerged once he was added to the first line. The reality, which the player will tell you himself, is that his improved status was earned, not given, dating back weeks before his promotion. Konecny doesn’t just dazzle you with his offense these days. He has become quite good at forcing turnovers, breaking up plays with breakneck back-checks, and eliminating those high-risk, low-reward passes he was trying at the start of the season.
Which is a lengthy way of introducing the current plight of Sanheim, who in training camp was projected by most, Flyers brass included, to be getting the same kind of minutes Shayne Gostisbehere received at this point of his first NHL season, or at least the minutes Hagg receives nightly.
Instead Sanheim played his way out of the lineup with tentative play and costly mistakes — or, in that alternative universe, he was not handled correctly by the first-time pro coach who was hired from the college ranks. Ultimately, after he spent nine of 10 games in late December-early January watching from the press box, the Flyers made what some considered the risky move of returning him to the minor leagues after a game in Washington on Jan. 21.
Risky because Sanheim’s condition was already considered fragile.
“I think if you ask anyone if they get sent down, they’re not too satisfied or happy to be going down,’’ Sanheim was saying the other day, after a 3 ½-hour bus ride to Bridgeport, Conn. “The first day or so it kind of takes a little bit of adjustment, just the realization of where you’re at. But then you take a step back and assess where you’re at. I think I handled it pretty well. I came back here motivated. Right from the get-go I felt like I came down here with a purpose. And I’ve been feeling good about my game and where it’s at. Especially this last week.’’
Sanheim had seven points in four games from Feb. 7 to 13. Paired with the healthier Myers for three of those games, he finished as a plus-8. Both players can skate, can add offense. Myers isn’t Morin when it comes to hits, but those hits still hurt, and he is only 21 and still filling out.
They will hurt more in coming years.
The pair has been, in a word, dynamic, a big reason the Phantoms had a four-game winning streak and were just four points behind first-place Wilkes-Barre headed into Friday night’s game in Springfield, Mass.
“When you come down here, we live a little more with the mistakes because we know that as long as you’re learning from the mistakes, you’re getting better,” Phantoms coach Scott Gordon told reporters recently. “And he’s got a little more freedom to maybe play with a clearer mind than when he was up in Philadelphia just because of the pressure that sometimes you make a mistake, sometimes you don’t end up back out on the ice. And here, that’s not the case.”
“The best way to put it is that when I’m playing my best hockey I just go out there and play and do what I do best,’’ said Sanheim. “I feel like I’m really starting to take off. It’s something I want to take with me the next time I get my chance.’’
When that will be is anybody’s guess. After an epidemic of injuries to start the season, the Flyers’ defensive corps has been ridiculously healthy. But as Sanheim knows all too well, that can change with a bounce of the puck.
And when it does, he said, “I now know that I can play at that level. So I don’t think it’s going to be an adjustment period where I’m wondering if I can play with those guys. I already know that. So it’s just about going up, doing my thing, playing the way I can. The rest will take care of itself.’’