ANAHEIM, Calif. — In essence, the Flyers are holding open auditions for their final defensive spot.
Enter Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin, promising young defensemen who appear to still be battling for that last opening.
Sanheim struggled during the first 40 minutes of his NHL debut Thursday as the Flyers dropped a 2-0 decision to Los Angeles at the Staples Center, but he settled down and played solidly in the third period.
The question is, did he open the door for Morin to get a shot at staying with the Flyers, who plan to soon reduce their roster from eight defensemen to seven? Morin could play Saturday in Anaheim, and the fact that he has two years of AHL experience — one more than Sanheim — could work in his favor when a final roster decision is made.
In the second period of Thursday’s hard-fought loss, Sanheim allowed Trevor Lewis to get behind him and score the game’s first goal, though he was caught out of position because of Scott Laughton’s neutral-zone turnover. Sanheim, who looked hesitant in the game’s early stages, later was penalized four minutes for high sticking and he finished minus-2 on the night.
In the third period, he got more involved in the offense and had some scoring chances, resembling the player who tied for the team lead with three goals in the preseason.
“I kind of wish the game could have gone on and I could go right into the next one because I started to feel more comfortable and started to play my game,” said Sanheim, 21, after the Flyers slipped to 1-1.
After the game, general manager Ron Hextall reiterated he doesn’t want one of his young defensemen sitting as an extra. That implies that either Morin, a healthy scratch in the first two games, or Sanheim will be sent to the Phantoms during or after the road trip.
“We’re not going to carry eight, but I don’t have a timeline necessarily,” Hextall said when asked when a decision would be made. “It could be tomorrow, it could be a week from now, it could be two weeks from now.”
It will probably be sooner rather than later because Hextall wants his young players playing.
The three rookie defensemen — Sanheim, Morin, and steady Robert Hagg — each bring a different skill set.
Coach Dave Hakstol is deciding which of those skill sets matches up best against the strengths of each opponent, saying he would put together a lineup “specific to the team we’re playing against.”
“We’re just looking for the right piece of the puzzle,” Hextall said. “Sam’s a big, heavy defensive defenseman. Hagg is a solid two-way guy, and Travis has a little more offense than both of them. You’ve got three different players there.”
Hextall liked the way Sanheim overcame his poor start Thursday.
“It’s his first NHL game and you have to take that into account,” Hextall said, “and as the game went on, he got better.”
“This is a tough building and a tough environment to play your first NHL game,” Hakstol said of the Staples Center, “and I really liked how Travis stayed with it. I really thought he started to play his game in the latter half of the second period and the third period. That’s a positive. There’s going to be some jitters there.”
Especially when a roster spot is hanging in the balance.
— Michal Neuvirth was outstanding as he stopped 25 of 27 shots, including a highlight-film save on Anze Kopitar in the opening period, but the Kings’ Jonathan Quick (35 saves) was flawless as he notched his 45th career shutout.
— The Flyers, looking much faster than last season, have dominated the third period, territorial-wise, in each of the first two games. They outshot L.A., 17-5, in the third.
— Laughton had a game-high five shots and, with linemates Taylor Leier and Michael Rafl, created several scoring chances.
— After going 3 for 5 on the power play in San Jose, the Flyers were 0 for 5 against the Kings. … Claude Giroux said the Flyers “did a lot of good things” in L.A.: “I feel like the lines are starting to click a little bit and finding some chemistry. As frustrated as we are that we lost this game, we have to take a lot of good things out if it.”
— Excluding an empty-net score, the Flyers have just one even-strength goal over two games.