“Don’t read into it,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said when asked about the defensive pairings in Thursday night’s rookie game against the Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center.
Which might be the best news Travis Sanheim and Sam Morin have heard all week.
Morin, 22, was paired in last night’s rookie game with Mark Friedman, the Bowling Green defenseman and 2014 third-round pick who is expected to spend this season with Lehigh Valley. Sanheim, 21, was paired with Philippe Myers, whose meteoric rise from free agent to premier prospect has injected him into the conversation about who in the crowded field of young defensemen will land the two spots available with the departures of Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz.
The last player cut during last summer’s camp, Myers, 20, is an intriguing combination of skating, skill and size and righthandedness who will likely begin the season with Lehigh Valley. Morin and Sanheim, with Robert Hagg, are widely seen as the front-runners for the Flyers jobs. Each has played at least a season at the AHL level, and in the 6-7 Morin’s case, make it two.
Here’s Hextall, prior to the game: “I think if you look at guys like Sam and Sanheim who have been around a couple years, the expectations are a little higher for them than a kid we just drafted. We do expect those guys to take charge. In this game on this night, they’re the leaders of the team. We expect a little more.”
Sam and Sanheim. Got a nice ring to it, right? It goes even deeper. The two were paired in Allentown for much of last season, shared an apartment together, roomed on the road together, tortured each other a little even with their respective nuances. “I’m definitely cleaner,” said Sanheim, the 17th overall pick in 2014. “I mean, we’re both clean. But I’m like, everything needs to be perfect.”
“That’s the truth,” Morin said, eavesdropping a few lockers away.
An intimidating basher who owned suspect stick and skating skills when he first donned a Phantoms jersey in 2015, Morin was lauded by Hextall Thursday as a player who has simplified his game, refined his skating, and above all, showed restraint. Some of that is taught, some by just playing, but both he and Sanheim believe each of their development has been aided greatly by the company they keep.
“We had great chemistry,’’ Morin said of last season. “We worked a lot together. And we talked a lot.”
“I think he’s right,” Sanheim said. “When we lived together last year, our friendship kind of grew. We were able to discuss anything and everything. It seemed like every time we came off the ice, he was either telling me something or I was telling him something. ‘Did you see me there?’ Or ‘maybe you could have hit the middle there instead of chipping it off the glass.’ ”
Sanheim’s start last year was bumpy. In his previous two seasons with the WHL Calgary Hitmen, he had averaged over a point per game. When that productivity was not matched, he tried to force the offense, resulting in some ugly results in his own net.
But that was brief, and Morin played a part in that. “Being my first year, new systems, new coaching staff — he had been there,” Sanheim aid. “He knew what it was all about…And I kind of grew off that …”
Said Hextall, “He figured out the little nuances between being too eager to try to produce and kind of playing the game that presents itself rather than trying to push. It’s hard at this level to try and make things happen when they’re not there. I think Ghost [Shayne Gostisbehere] went through a little bit of it last year too. That’s where I think Travis has done a really good job of learning really quickly.”
Sanheim finished the season with 10 goals and 27 assists and a plus-7. It didn’t take him long for him to influence Thursday night’s game either. By the end of a 2-1 first period, Sanheim had left an impression, recording about a third of the Flyers’ 18 shots, surrendering a semi-breakaway and a penalty after an ill-advised keep attempt at the blueline, scoring their second goal after jumping into the play, retrieving his own rebound, and deftly banking in a shot off a convention of skates from the corner.
Morin finished last season with 16 points – and 129 penalty minutes – 11 more than the season before. He too left a first-period trail of clues, slew-footing an Islander in front of his own net as play headed the other way, landing a big hit along the boards that had another Islander hopewful wobbling back towards his bench.
A good chunk of those minutes traced to fights in which an opposing player also landed in the penalty box. It’s no secret the Flyers struggled keeping people out of their crease last season, and that having a 6-7 guy out there with a mean streak might be just the kind of space creator Gostisbehere would welcome.
Which is why some preseason predictions have Morin starting the season in Philadelphia while Sanheim returns to Lehigh Valley for seasoning — even if he exhibits all the qualities Hextall extolled prior to Thursday night’s game. Hard to believe though, given Hextall’s effusive praise of his progress and quick study, that he and Morin will be in different towns for too long.
“Oh I’m sure we’ll still get enough of each other,” Sanheim said, laughing. “I’m rooming with him right now, so we’ll see where this goes.”