Offices, bars, living rooms, you name it, the Flyers defensive situation has been mentioned in them all. It’s been the hottest topic since it was announced that the Flyers weren’t bringing back Michael Del Zotto or Nick Schultz. With Del Zotto signing in Vancouver, Schultz hanging up his skates, and the Flyers not making any moves related to the blue line in free agency, it all but shores up the fact that help will be coming in the form of call ups when it comes to the Flyers defense.
These call ups have been a long time coming. Ever since Hextall took office, he has been stock piling prospects, and the Flyers have arguably the deepest and most talented prospect pool in all of the NHL. With that, the focus has been mostly on defense where the Flyers have struggled mightily as of late. Signings and trades never seem to pan out, even in the short term, but this approach, albeit time consuming, seems to be approaching its payout.
With training camp coming up in the next month, and two spots on the blue line up for grabs, we take a look at the three prospects most likely to fill those spots.
Samuel Morin was drafted 11th overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft. His six foot seven frame made him the perfect candidate to be drafted by the Flyers, who were and still are in desperate need of a solid defensive minded blue liner. Often compared to Chris Pronger because of his size and mean streak, Morin has quietly become one of the more highly touted prospects within the organization. Most recently, he posted a season with three goals and thirteen assists for sixteen points in 74 games.
Morin eventually got a call up, late in the season against the New Jersey Devils in a meaningless game. Meaningless to most. Morin took full advantage of the opportunity to show Flyers brass what they invested their 2013 11th overall pick in. He led all players on ice with seven hits, throwing his 227 pound frame around to his advantage whenever he was given the opportunity. He also spent 17:47 on ice in his debut, paired mainly with former Lehigh Valley linemate Shayne Gostisbehere. Morin wasn’t alone, however, because fellow newcomer Mike Vecchione made his awaited debut as well for the orange and black that same night. When asked about both debuts, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol replied, “Their third periods were the best for both of them and that’s what you want to see. Both of them played with good confidence.” Morin played with such confidence, he defended a Taylor Hall breakaway well enough to prevent a completely unattested shot from potentially hitting the back of the net. His stickwork and skating proved beneficial in stopping the scoring chance. Not to mention, Taylor Hall has some wheels.
Overall, Morin’s debut was a successful one, and he displayed the characteristics in which coaches wished of him. He’s a big, strong, physical defenseman who plays hard and doesn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. He won’t beat you with speed, he won’t beat you with his ability to move the puck. What he will beat you with is his defensive abilities, and not to mention, his fists.
Robert Hagg was the second defenseman chosen in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, one round after previously mentioned Samuel Morin. Hagg was the pick that let every Flyers fan know that the organization was serious about its overhaul on the blue line. Hagg took a little while to get adjusted to the AHL, but when he did, he hit his stride. In 58 games last year, he put up seven goals and eight assists for fifteen points. He isn’t flashy, he won’t score a ton of goals, but he will beat you with fundamentals. Hagg is a solid defensive defenseman.
Hagg earned his call up for the very last game of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes. He played first line minutes with 21:19, laid a team high four hits on the Canes, and blocked three shots. He was mostly paired with Shayne Ghostisbehere, but spent a few shifts on ice with fellow rookie Ivan Provorov. Hagg impressed Hakstol as well, and when asked about his debut, Hakstol said, “I thought it was solid, strong play. Confident player. I thought he defended pretty well. It didn’t take him very long to settle into the hockey game.”
Hagg and Morin are frontrunners for the two opening roster spots, but another defenseman is making quite the case to be in the running for a spot in the lineup.
Sanheim is obviously the dark horse here. He has made incredible strides since being drafted seventeenth overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. After being drafted, he spent two more years down in juniors with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. Each of those years, he surpassed the 60 point mark which is astounding for a defenseman. When he made the jump to the AHL, he was met with stiffer competition but still managed to amass ten goals, twenty seven assists, and thirty seven points in 76 games.
Even in the AHL, Sanheim is no slouch. The kid can outright play, and it is only a matter of time until he cracks the surface and graces the Flyers with his presence on the blue line. However, this year may not be it. There is a pecking order whether it’s been established or not, every fan knows. Morin and Hagg are right at the top considering how they were brought up each for a game at the end of the season last year. One has to imagine that aside from Mark Alt potentially, Sanheim has to be in line for the next call up.
Hextall will tell you, he has been impressed by what Sanheim has done with the Phantoms up to this point. Moreso, he is impressed with his progress. He has said, “I watched Travis Sanheim – you see him, his first development camp he looked like a young boy. And you look at him now, and he almost looks like a man. He’s just more upright, you can tell his body is more linked up, he’s got a stronger core, he’s more upright when he skates.”
Obviously the skill is there, it just isn’t the right time. The two spots that are available are going to be filled by Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg not only because they are at the top of the “pecking order,” but because they need physical defensemen that are focused on defending as opposed to moving the puck up ice for scoring chances. The Flyers have lacked that one great stay at home defenseman ever since Chris Pronger. Samuel Morin is the closest thing the Flyers have to that kind of skater. Robert Hagg is a big guy, but he isn’t six foot seven, two hundred and twenty pounds plus big like Morin is.
The Flyers blue line is looking up. I’m not saying they’re looking up because of the amount of skill coming up through, I’m saying looking up because there are some big boys coming to play. The Flyers need that physicality, they need that toughness, they need the grit that they have so long been missing. The days of Andrew MacDonald and plug and play defenseman may be nearing an end, and Flyers fans will be happy to know that the blue line will be in good hands for years to come when that happens.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports