2016-17 Phantoms Preview Part 2 - Defense

Friday, October 14, 2016
Travis Sanheim headlines a talented Phantoms blue line this season. Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey
Blueline Depth Not An Issue For Lehigh Valley Entering 2016-17 Season

Written by: Tim Riday - Twitter

If you ask any hockey coach, they’ll tell you having too many defensemen is usually a good problem to have.

That’s especially true if you’re Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon. Over the past two years, the Phantoms have seen a slew of talented young blueliners come through town.

In case you missed it, the 2016-17 Phantoms Part 1 Preview featured the goaltenders.

It’s easy to forget that a guy named Shayne Gostisbehere began the 2015-16 season in the minors. Sure, he impressed at Philadelphia Flyers training camp but he was also coming off a serious ACL injury that cost him 90 percent of his first year as a pro. The safe route was to start him off with less pressure in the AHL.

Gostisbehere, who eventually earned a call up and went on to turn heads in the NHL en route to becoming a Calder Trophy finalist as one of the league’s top three rookies, was joined by first-year AHLers Sam Morin and Robert Hagg in Allentown last season.

Fortunately, Gordon had three other defenders with plenty of experience to help guide those three prospects along the way. It was Andrew MacDonald, Davis Drewiske and Mark Alt who all played vital leadership roles for the Phantoms.

That made things easier toward the end of the year when Travis Sanheim and Reece Willcox were ready to join the team after their junior and college schedules concluded. To create a winning environment, you need veterans to show the kids the way. It’s a good recipe for success from a development standpoint.

“All the guys who were first-year players last year, it’s like night and day different,” Gordon said after the Phantoms’ preseason win over the Charlotte Checkers at PPL Center on Saturday. “In their confidence, in their ability to play the game at a pro level versus a junior level or a college level. That’s still going to progress."

"The talent and the ability of the draft picks that we have, to me, is really impressive," Gordon continued. "These guys had their lumps last year. I think this year you’re going to see a lot of huge strides. Last year, you saw huge strides in small areas. Now this year, I think we’ll see players that, all of a sudden, they look good but they’re gonna look even a lot better.”

Youth is being served in the Flyers’ organization, especially on the blue line. Gostisbehere and 2015 first-round pick Ivan Provorov are with the big club to start 2016-17. For the Phantoms, returning defensemen Morin and Hagg are being joined by Sanheim and Willcox -- who are posed for their first full seasons as professionals -- on the back end.

It’s impossible not to be excited for the future. Now it’s unrealistic to think every single one of the Flyers’ defensive prospects will pan out, but the time has finally arrived to assess where they are all at in their quests to the next level.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall is serious about making the organization a contender from the top down. That’s why he brought in proven AHL studs like T.J. Brennan and Will O’Neill.

Now it’s up to Gordon to figure out how the blue line shakes up. The potential pair options are seemingly endless.

“They’re all capable of playing with each other,” Gordon said. “Even within games, we’re not locked into anybody. There are a couple guys who can play the off side when we don’t have all the left and rights. As a group, I think we’re happy with what we have.”

Gordon had a brief experiment on Saturday, placing Sanheim with Morin for a few shifts. Gordon didn’t rule out the two playing together in the future, either.

Then it was back to reality. Sanheim finished the game with O’Neill and Morin skated with Max Lamarche. Brennan teamed up with Willcox to form the other pair.

O’Neill was quick to praise Sanheim.

“I thought it was good,” he said. “I think Travis is a good player, obviously. He’s a done good job at every level he’s been at. Nothing different here. Just come in and he played well. I thought there was good talk between me and him. He’s got ears, he listens. He’s fun to play with.”

There’s no guarantees the two will line up next to each in Friday’s season opener but the Phantoms’ defense is beginning to take shape.

One thing that is certain is Morin will not play with his partner from a season ago out of the gate. Alt suffered a shoulder injury in a preseason fight while with the Flyers and is expected to miss some serious time.

Morin isn’t worried, however. He admitted Alt’s injury was a tough pill to swallow but he was quick to point out the depth and skill level remaining in the active lineup.

“I think we all complement each other,” he said. “We got great guys. A lot of good experience with T.J. and Will. Travis is coming, too, for his first year. It’s fun. We all push each other. If you want your ice time, you need to deserve it. That’s for sure.”

In addition to the two preseason games the team has already played, Gordon plans to use the Phantoms’ practice time this week to tinker with his defensive corps. He wouldn’t commit to any specific pairs for the opener but has a pretty good idea of how things will turn out.

What’s certain is Lehigh Valley has an enviable mix of offensive-minded and defensively-responsible blueliners at its disposal. Gordon could barely contain his excitement.

“I think that the biggest thing is the guys up top,” he said of his club. “They can do so much as far as moving the puck and getting it into the forwards’ hands and in good positions.

“Between Travis, Will and T.J., a lot of teams are going to have to respect their shots. When you have guys who can score out there, all of sudden that loosens things up down low for the forwards. They’re all excited.”

So is Philadelphia.

Edited by: Tony Androckitis


Joseph Pisacano said...

You gotta be excited as a LHV and Flyers fan for the defense in coming years. If Sanheim and Morin really tear it up through the first couple months in the A I could really see Hextall willing to trade Streit and Schultz at the deadline in order to clear space up top for them. Also Streit and Schultz are on the final year of their contracts and there is no way Hextall can justify resigning either of them with so much young talent in the system

Nick Maurer said...

Not much mention of Hagg, have we officially given up on him?

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