"It takes a village. You have to roll four lines. You have to sacrifice." Stop…
Travis Sanheim has always been something of a controversial figure on Flyers Twitter and similar online avenues. The explanation for why is obvious, and not entirely wrong.
Sanheim is the world’s premier example of an ectomorph and couldn’t possibly put weight on if he threw down 12 dozen boxes of donuts a day. That also means he doesn’t put muscle on either. He just stays as skinny as a rail.
Being tall and thin is a terrible combination for tests of strength. Sanheim is likely to get outworked in corners simply because he has both poor leverage and poor raw strength.
Because height is fetishized among NHL defensemen, Sanheim is seen as a waste of being 6’3″ by fans who watch him get bullied in the corner. Add in his very real skating abilities. He feels like the world’s biggest disappointment every time he hits the ice because he should be Jaccob Slavin… but, damn it, he just won’t gain that weight!
Very little of that is his fault. He can’t help his extreme genetics, just like he can’t help that people often wrongly fetishize height at his position.
For most of his career, Sanheim has made up for his shortcomings by dominating in scenarios where his strength doesn’t come into the equation.
He’s always graded out well as a defender of his blueline. He prevents zone entries well because his skating is excellent, and he can keep up with even the most mobile forwards. It’s more likely to occur quickly. It’ll happen through a poke check or a forced dump-in. Nothing that makes up for the egregious eye-test travesty that is his corner work.
Usually, he’s an extremely good puck mover. He has pretty good vision in transition, but it’s his excellent skating and puck-carrying abilities that bring him over the top in this category.
He scores at pretty good rates in 5v5 play, generally, because he’s so active in his team’s rush attack. But he’s useless on a power-play, as he lacks the high-end vision or puck skills to crack open defenses or even just make crisp reads from the point.
At the end of the day, you’re left with a quality second-pair defenseman. An ideal #3 who can win the minutes that take place behind your top pair, even when he’s saddled with a less-than-ideal partner. He’ll often provide these results at the expense of some very real “hair pull-worthy” moments.
But that’s fine. That’s a good guy to have around. The Flyers likely surmised the same thing when they signed him to an 8-year extension with an AAV of 6.25 million before opening day commenced last season.
The problems with that are twofold.
1) The Travis Sanheim I’m describing may, in fact, be a relic of the past. For all the attempts to make Sanheim into a debate about “eye test vs. analytics, “... the analytics and eye test were in agreement: he absolutely sucked last year.
2) The emergence of Cam York and Emil Andrae means there are two left-handed defensemen who seem poised to take on top 4 roles in the future, which means Sanheim’s usefulness ostensibly has an expiration date that seems nearer every day. Once they are both ready for those positions, Sanheim is an overpaid 3rd pair hanger-on.
Or… is he?
According to John Tortorella, Travis Sanheim will begin this camp by playing the right side of the defense.
It’s something that he’s done sporadically in the NHL, often pairing with Ivan Provorov in a pinch. He’s done it frequently in the AHL, where there was a year-long concerted effort to make him comfortable on both sides.
According to Sanheim, he is—in fact—comfortable on both sides. Should that be the case?
His usefulness to the team could be extended by several years, guaranteeing he’s relevant even as York and Andrae grow into roles that they seem all but destined for.
Now, the only questions that remain are all about his play… was last year an aberration? Can Sanheim return to being the annoying but objectively effective defenseman that he was in years past?
Or was last year the unfortunate beginning of a new normal, where it’s all bad? Both annoying and objectively subpar?
And can Sanheim transfer those results of years past to his off side?
That’s a question that will only be answered through reps as training camp and the coming season wears on.
Mandatory Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum