Travis Sanheim is off to a strong start with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2021-2022, but he could be better.
Uncertainty surrounded the second defensive pair of the Flyers before the 2021-2022 season began. When Chuck Fletcher acquired a fresh coat defense via trades and free agency, Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen raised a few questions. On paper, the pairing is interesting; two defensemen who tow the blue line on a powerplay but left room for defensive improvement.
In 2020-2021, the Flyers’ defensive makeup revolved around point production from the blue line. Unfortunately, it was not effective. Only Ivan Provorov and Justin Braun provided a positive contribution in 50+ games. Analytically speaking, Sanheim had the highest Corsi percentage (54.1%) of any Philadelphia defenseman. Frankly, he didn’t pass the eye test a season ago.
When the lineup came to fruition, showing Sanheim and Ristolainen partnered together, Alain Vigneault had to rely on one of them to take on defensive instincts first. Giving credit where it is due, the second pair partially improved, but not enough to help defeat the current “Beast of the East,” Florida Panthers.
Provorov and Ryan Ellis are what the doctor ordered. Ellis brings the stability next to Provorov that disappeared when Matt Niskanen retired. Braun and Keith Yandle mesh well on the bottom pair, providing a veteran presence. Both of these mentioned pairs emphasize two-way defense or defense-first. The jury is still out on Sanheim and Ristolainen, a more physical version of the former Sanheim and Philippe Myers duo.
Pardon my overreaction.
Right now, Travis Sanheim is the most physical and disruptive defenseman on the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s second on the team in blocked shots (13) and tied for first of all defensemen in team hits (5) with Nick Seeler and Keith Yandle. We’re talking about a 2-1-1 team. In the long term of this season, the jury is still out. Nonetheless, a better beginning to 2021-2022 from how he finished in 2020-2021.
There are still momentary lapses on the second pair. Along the boards, physicality has tipped the scales. Down the middle, Sanheim isn’t knocking enough skaters off of pucks. He’s played with Justin Braun, who compliments by occupying the slot as a stay-at-home defenseman.
His worst performance of this small sample size was recent versus the Florida Panthers. It was also the first time he paired with Rasmus Ristolainen; Braun filled in for Ryan Ellis. The Panthers took advantage of the soft presence from Ristolainen and Sanheim in the second period, allowing Owen Tippett to deflect the puck past Carter Hart from in tight.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Sanheim and Ristolainen played one NHL game on the same pair.
Florida, currently still undefeated, had the effective counter to the Flyers.
How the Flyers can achieve Balance
Hear me out: flipping Keith Yandle and Travis Sanheim could better compliment Rasmus Ristolainen and Justin Braun. Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher are surveying their lineup to see what works in the first ten games. What do we know so far?
We know Sanheim works well with Braun. We know Yandle had to carry weight on the third pair with Nick Seeler. Why not push Yandle to the second pair, taking weight off of Sanheim to find his center on the bottom?
Ristolainen will continue to take the body along the boards. Yandle is the superior puck handler in comparison to Sanheim. Already, the second pair improves the body-to-position defensive balance. Sanheim aides Braun in advancing the puck against opposing bottom-sixes. Those sheltered minutes also contribute to a growth in chemistry for Sanheim and Braun, who represent the defensemen on the second penalty kill unit.
In 5v5 scenarios, Yandle represents a modest improvement over Sanheim in 2021-2022. By shuffling the defense just a hair, the Philadelphia Flyers could see gradual improvements on their penalty kill, away from their first unit. Defensive balance and identity are vital. The Flyers have the personnel now, unlike a season ago, and a chance to figure things out early on.
Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre