Competition stiff, but Travis Sanheim making strong case to stay with Flyers

Travis Sanheim (right) skates past Boston’s Zachary Senyshyn during the first period of Thursday’s preseason game.

BOSTON — Travis Sanheim, a promising defenseman who appeared on his way back to the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms after a slow start in training camp, has vaulted himself into the mix for a Flyers roster spot.

Thanks to outstanding performances in exhibition games on back-to-back nights, Sanheim has given the Flyers brass a quandary: Which of three rookie defensemen will fill the two open spots?

Sanheim, Robert Hagg, and Sam Morin have lived up to their billings. All have played well enough in the preseason to break camp with the Flyers. One of them, however, figures to start the season in Lehigh Valley.

Sanheim was the Flyers’ best player Thursday in a 2-1 overtime loss in Boston, scoring a goal, playing solid defense — he broke up a two-on-one at one point — and selecting opportune times to join (or lead) the rush down ice.

“He played a confident game. He had the puck quite a bit,” coach Dave Haksol said after the Flyers slipped to 1-1-2 in the preseason. “One of the things he’s good at is getting up into the play, and his skating ability allows him to get there. … And I thought he had a pretty clean game defensively. A lot of that comes from defending well and making a good first pass.

“He’s just a more confident player than he was a year ago.”

Sanheim, 21, agreed.

“I’m getting more comfortable with the guys, the system, and the level of play,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit different up here, and I’m just trying to continue to get better. At the start of camp, that’s something Dave [harped] on — just continue to build on your game and get better each day. That’s the biggest thing I’m working on now.”

Hagg, whose calming presence and two-way ability have been evident throughout camp, and the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Morin also had strong games against the Bruins (3-0).

“I thought all three young guys played with good poise,” Hakstol said. “Those guys, when you look at their last week, they’ve played a lot of hockey. They haven’t had a day off along the way. So [Thursday] was a bit of endurance as well, and I thought they answered that call pretty well.”

The three defensemen have four more preseason games to show they deserve to stay with the Flyers.

All three feel they are ready for The Show.

“I’m a lot more confident this year,” the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Sanheim said after firing a team-high four shots on goal Thursday.”You can see I’m picking my right chances to jump up into the play. I’m just trying to make smart decisions, make good reads, and I think it’s been working so far.”

Sanheim and Hagg are stronger two-way players than Morin, a stay-at-home defender who is the most physical of the trio. All are products of the Flyers’ burgeoning farm system. Hagg was a second-round selection in 2013, and Morin (2013) and Sanheim (2014) were first-round picks.

Breakaways. The Flyers were off from camp Friday but will return to the ice Saturday morning in Voorhees. … Despite Thursday’s loss, the Flyers outplayed Boston in several areas. They won 68 percent of the faceoffs, had six more power plays than the Bruins, and outhit them, 29-20. “A small step forward, but a step forward,” said Hakstol, who added he wasn’t overly concerned with the Flyers’ 0-for-9 power play because the team hasn’t had time yet to work on it at practice. … In three preseason games, Sanheim and Hagg are each “even” in plus-minus stats, and Morin is minus-2. … Sanheim played 20 minutes (second among Flyers defensemen) Thursday, Hagg (four hits) played 18:32, and Morin played 14:49. … Brian Elliott stopped all 18 Boston shots he faced in his Flyers debut. “You forget how fun it actually is to play a game,” Elliott said. … The Flyers will face the Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Monday.