In Detail: Travis Sanheim’s Miserable 2023 Season
Diagnosing what went wrong in Travis Sanheim’s game in this season has been something that I’ve been meaning to do for some time. It fascinates me how his play driving results has managed to fall off a cliff so horrendously and so suddenly.
Before this season, Travis Sanheim was extremely reliable at tilting the ice in favor of the Flyers. He ended defensive sequences quickly, and he helped create offense for the Flyers with his abilities on the rush. He didn’t do these things to the level of a true #1. But he was the best the Flyers had at that crucial area of hockey.
Of course, Sanheim is also notorious for the occasional mental gaffe. He gets absolutely bullied along the wall at times. It happens to the best of us, but it has always happened to Sanheim more often than many.
That “bad” was well worth the “good” for every season until this year.
Sure, Sanheim’s play culminated in his 2021-2022 season. But it was never just that season. He had quietly been a better play driver than Ivan Provorov for most of his career.
That all changed in this season. To make matters worse, he decided to have this abysmal season in the wake of signing an 8 year extension for $6.25M.
How did it happen?
I went back to watch some of Sanheim’s game from this season, as well as some of his game from last season. I expected to need to pick out several games from each season, before small details began to emerge and I could finally put to bed what changes in his game were driving such a precipitous drop in his results.
Turns out, it was all much simpler than I thought. Really, the key to Travis Sanheim’s game can be boiled down to one question.
How much does he have the puck?
In 2021-2022, Travis Sanheim always had the puck multiple times per shift.
Sanheim was controlling play by being the guy who the puck always found. In one way, that meant him getting back on retrievals in the defensive zone, and turning that retrieval into a breakout.
In another way, that meant skating up ice and joining the rush that his breakout had helped to create. To this day, he’s exceptional at creating entries into the offensive zone and generates a lot of rush offense that way.
When his game is right, he just always has the puck. Or he’s just made a play to get the puck to a teammate, or he’s positioning for that teammate to make a play to him.
He’s something like Mackenzie Weegar of the Flames and previously of the Panthers. They both produce uncanny playdriving results. They don’t allow a ton of chances while they’re on the ice. They create a bunch of chances.
But nobody really understands how. In the case of both men, it’s for the same reason. They just control the puck for so much of their shifts.
That’s what hockey is about, really. If you’re controlling the puck, chances are, you are actively winning the game in those moments.
In 2022-2023, spotting Sanheim playing the puck is tantamount to spotting a unicorn.
He just doesn’t do it. He will defer to his partner in instances where it makes no sense to defer.
Sometimes, when the forecheck is swarming around you and your partner has all the space in the world, the smart play is to defer. Good playmakers recognize when that’s the right play to make, and that in turn makes their teammates better.
Sanheim, this year, is doing a lot of the opposite. Instead of taking the space he’s given, he’ll make the puck someone else’s problem. He’ll ask someone else to take the chance and beat the forecheck, which given who he is, makes absolutely no sense. It just robs him of all the value in his game.
There’s a play in the Carolina game where Sanheim has one forechecker to beat, and there’s enough of a gap between him and the F1 that he has plenty of time to devise a plan and go.
But instead, he makes a D-to-D pass to Ristolainen. Well, if anyone knows Carolina’s forecheck structure, they run a 2-1-2 where the F3 is so aggressive that it might as well be layered like a 3-2-0.
In the simplest terms, if you’re facing the Canes, and you only have one person to maneuver around? Take that chance. If not, your teammates are already being swarmed by 2 and 3 guys. Sanheim didn’t understand that. Or, maybe, didn’t have the will to act on that understanding.
The F2 and F3 are all over Risto, and suddenly he has to make a play with his feet just to survive the swarm coming after him. He makes the play, actually. That’s a glowing testament to how far Ristolainen has come this season.
But it’s even more so a damning indictment of how far Sanheim’s game has fallen.
How did this happen?
From what I can diagnose, there’s a mental block going on with Sanheim. Just last year, he had the will and the ability to beat opposing forechecks and drive play. It was his superpower. The reason his analytics and advanced stats were so sterling, when Twitter often wanted him hung like a banner in the Wells Fargo Center for some hit he didn’t absorb properly.
He’s lost that. How did he lose it from one year going onto the next? What happened in the interim?
I’m not going to pretend I know for certain, but the only thing that happened in the interim is the hiring of John Tortorella.
I want to make this clear: this is 0% John Tortorella’s fault.
But even John Tortorella knows what his reputation is. He’s said it himself. He comes into town, and players have perceptions of him that affect how they play. Someone intimately familiar with how this works is Cam York, who played an egregiously conservative style all throughout training camp because he believed that’s what Torts wanted to see.
He would even make attempts to take the body, because it’s ingrained in him that is what Torts wants to see.
You can understand someone like Cam having that impression. More so, you can understand someone like that making wholesale changes to their game because they want to stick in the NHL.
Cam–in a fit of irony–was sent to the AHL because of these changes. One advantage that served, as frustrating as it must have been for York, was sending the message that Tortorella was not just the “all defense” hard ass coach that he’s been painted as.
To this day, Cam doesn’t fully understand just how aggressive Tortorella actually wants him to be. In fairness, that’s a very difficult concept to grasp. Torts is the guy who coached Zach Werenski, who spends more time deep in the offensive zone than any defenseman alive.
And he specifically coached Werenski to be that way. Werenski was thought of a two-way guy coming out of his draft. Tortorella turned him into an unabashed rover, an offensive defenseman whose aggression knows no limits.
It’s a difficult thing to square. The guy who nearly barfed on-air when he saw Zegras’ Michigan pass and the guy who said Aleksander Barkov was the true best player in the world over Connor McDavid–because of defense related reasons–also coaches defensemen to be as aggressive in the offense as any in the game.
Sure, he’s a unique personality that takes time to get used to.
So I can understand why Sanheim started the year with a lack of poise with the puck. Even if he is a veteran while Cam is a kid, everyone wants to be liked and trusted by their coach.
What I can’t understand… is why this is still such a problem, nearly 70 games into a season.
Look, in some ways, I get it. Inertia and momentum can have their way. Sanheim starts the year on the wrong foot, and because nothing of monumental importance happens in the interim, he finds himself sinking further and further into those same bad habits.
Maybe it’s impossible for him to fully remove all of the mental blocks in his game until next season rolls around. But while I understand all of this, I still struggle mightily to actually accept it.
Travis Sanheim is an established veteran. 26 years old hardly makes him eligible for a cane, but this is very much the time of his career where it’s time to just… be who he is. He’s in his prime.
A puck moving defenseman who never gets any credit for their thousands of breakouts executed with possession, and who gets hung at the stake for not eating a check in the right way.
This is not the time to regress so extremely, regardless of the circumstances. Especially when the problem is one of will and not ability.
He absolutely can be better than what he’s been, he’s thus far just lacked the will. And that’s been the most frustrating part of it all.