|Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
There's no questioning Travis Sanheim's abilities offensively. He put those on full display in his final years of junior hockey with the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) and was a big reason why he was drafted in the first round - 17th overall - in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
The biggest questions surrounding his ability to translate his game to the pro level were how he'd be able to adapt to more physical play against bigger, stronger opponents and his willingness to play a more structured game away from the puck.
While the Lehigh Valley Phantoms are just approaching the midway point of the regular season this weekend, it's safe to say that Sanheim's game is evolving in all aspects - from his transition to playing the right side as a left-shooting defenseman to being more assertive and scrappy in the corners and hard areas of the ice.
"Obviously it's a work in progress, but I like where my game is at right now," Sanheim said last weekend after another two-goal performance in Hershey.
So where is Sanheim's game at exactly? Is he NHL-ready right now? What does he need to do in order to make the jump to the NHL? We'll get to all of that as well as provide a detailed update into how Sanheim's development in the AHL is going after the jump.
Sanheim's Initial Transition
Sanheim got his first taste of pro hockey last spring in the AHL with the Phantoms, appearing in four of the team's final six games - recording his first pro goal and adding two assists in those four contests before the season came to an end in mid-April.
After the initial jitters in the opening two periods of his pro debut, Sanheim began showing why he was an elite offensive defenseman in juniors. In the third period of his pro debut in Wilkes-Barre on April 8th, 2016 against the rival Penguins, with Philadelphia Flyers' management in attendance, Sanheim was leading the breakout and confidently bringing the puck up ice - displaying great vision and distributing the puck to open teammates with relative ease.
In the Phantoms' final game of the 2015-16 season at home against Syracuse, Sanheim broke through offensively with his first goal and an assist to finish the season on a high note.
The four-game taste of pro hockey certainly gave Sanheim a leg up on his preparations for this season, but he still had plenty to learn. He came into training camp in great physical shape and it was widely noted that he came in much stronger after a summer of workouts than he was when he first arrived in Lehigh Valley last spring.
The First Real Test in 2016-17 - Playing The Right Side
The first challenge for Sanheim while beginning his first full season of pro hockey was learning to play his off-hand, meaning being on the right side of the defense pairing he formed with fellow former 1st rounder Sam Morin - a second year pro.
It was something he mentioned having done a little bit in the past in juniors, but introducing it to him to begin his pro career was definitely a challenge that didn't come without some learning lessons along the way.
"We have him playing the off side and that's always an adjustment," head coach Scott Gordon said in a recent interview. "He's getting better at that from where he was at the start of the year - he's calming his feet down."
While Sanheim got off to a slow start offensively, look no further than Gordon challenging Sanheim to be more engaging in physical battles in the defensive zone as the real reason the points have been coming in bunches for Sanheim recently.
“It’s something that we’ve had a discussion about,” Gordon told Highland Park Hockey's Tim Riday on Sanheim being noticeably more physical in recent games. “He has to do more of that. We talked [last month] and that was the discussion. You have to engage yourself more physically. It can’t all be just stick-checking."
From no goals in his first 23 games to seven goals in his last 14 contests, Sanheim's ability to tighten up and play smarter in his own end has allowed him more chances offensively. Gordon explained this point perfectly after Sanheim's latest two-goal performance last Saturday in Hershey.
"He's finding his holes better and playing much more intelligent offensively," Gordon said of Sanheim's recent offensive surge. "At the beginning the year he was kind of selling the farm to get his offense. Now he's not doing that and, as a result, he's not only a better defensive player but a better offensive player."
Gordon continued, going on to explain why Sanheim has been able to join the rush and get more involved offensively:
"You can't just wait for the offense to happen. You have to do things right defensively. Usually when you're doing things right defensively you get more opportunities offensively. That's how it works. Any player that's in a scoring slump are probably not exerting the effort they need to exert and they're probably cheating defensively so they end up spending more time in their defensive zone. It's no different for a defenseman. If you get soft on your coverage and you don't play physical and tight to your man in the D-zone you're going to be stuck in there and chasing the game. Instead of going up and joining the attack on a quick counter out of your zone, you're making a change."Defense Opening Up Offense For Sanheim
The offensive ability has always been there for Sanheim. It was a matter of playing better in his own end and focusing on that to allow him to open up his game more in the offensive zone and joining the rush.
Sanheim showed a glimpse of what is to come in Saturday's 6-4 loss in Hershey. With his team down 2-0 in the second period, Sanheim tallied back to back goals to put his team right back into the game.
His first tally of the period was off of an offensive zone face-off during some 4-on-4 play. Some credit needs to go to center Andy Miele, who really battled on the face-off to win the draw and get the puck back to Sanheim at the center point. The rest was on the rookie.
Sanheim skated in a bit and unleashed a hard wrist shot that beat Bears' goaltender Joe Cannata to the spot - giving the Phantoms life in what otherwise was a grim performance offensively to that point in the game.
His game-tying goal moments later was a thing of beauty. Simply a highlight reel goal that you don't see often from anyone, let alone a defenseman. From the neutral zone, Sanheim made a few guys miss and continued on into the offensive zone - splitting the Bears' defense and slipping puck past Cannata under his right arm on a great individual effort to tie the game.
The Next Step
The general consensus is that it's only a matter of time before Sanheim makes his NHL debut, whether it be through a mid-season call up due to injuries in Philadelphia this season or after the Flyers potentially move a defenseman off their NHL roster to make room to try out some of the prospects in Lehigh Valley. Sanheim's debut may even need to wait until the 2017-18 season.
Until then, though, Sanheim will be eating up big minutes in the AHL and continuing to develop his all-around game. He routinely plays against opposing teams' top lines while also being a big part of the Phantoms' special teams units - playing both on the power play and on the penalty kill.
"There's no rush for him. He's down here to play and get better," Gordon said, adding, "It's a great situation for him."
Another interesting development with Sanheim will be his ability to pack on "good weight" as he continues to mature as an adult. He is, after all, only 20 years old and will continue to build strength and add muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame.
"Right now, he's 6-4 and weighs around 200. He's probably going to put on another 15 pounds and be that much stronger," Gordon said of Sanheim adding muscle and strength as he continues to develop physically.
"When they gain the weight, they lose some of the 'bambi-ness' in that they have more strength when they engage in battles. Their shot gets a little heavier. Their endurance improves. The weight he'll gain will be good weight. It won't be the kind of weight we gain," Gordon added with a grin.
As for what Sanheim thinks of where's he's at in terms of being NHL-ready? He's just looking to continue to work on his game and that one word every young player speaks about.
"I just have to show consistency. Playing good defensively, being strong on my 1-on-1's and like I said, just [overall] consistency."