Flyers’ Sanheim thriving in updated, more aggressive style

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Flyers' Travis Sanheim
Philadelphia Flyers’ Travis Sanheim reacts after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers, Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Let us rewind to the 2021-2022 season.

Alain Vigneault was relieved of his duties as the Philadelphia Flyers head coach. Mike Yeo became the interim head coach. It was the season everyone said goodbye to Claude Giroux.

Two skaters doubled up on the team awards. Cam Atkinson earned the Yanick Dupre Memorial Class Guy Award and the Bobby Clarke Trophy. The other standout was a defenseman. It wasn’t Ivan Provorov.

Travis Sanheim officially broke through. He earned the Barry Ashbee Trophy and Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy, simultaneously named the best defenseman on the team and the most improved.

Those accolades didn’t stop with the Flyers. Sanheim played for Canada in the 2022 IIHF World Championships. In ten games, Sanheim totaled four points (1G, 3A) while not committing any penalties. His performance contributed to a silver medal. Everything seemed to align for Sanheim as he prepared for whatever came with Philadelphia in 2022-2023.

John Tortorella is the fifth head coach to put his fingerprints on the trajectory of Sanheim in the NHL. After Sanheim had another breakout season, this time after the COVID era, Chuck Fletcher inked him to an eight-year extension effective this season. The Flyers committed their investment into Sanheim, and he bought into Tortorella. That is evidence of the franchise putting their faith in Sanheim because they moved on from Tony DeAngelo and Provorov. 

“We’re extremely happy to have Travis under [a] long term contract, and see him as a key piece of our team’s future. Travis has improved each season to become a highly reliable player and key contributor on our blue line. Furthermore, he is someone who developed his entire career with us and has grown into a valuable leader for our team.”

Chuck Fletcher; 10/13/2022

Doubt and unease came with the contract extension. Locking down the extension on the day of the home opener didn’t allow the future front office to watch his season unfold a bit before making an offer. Sanheim solidified his role as a top-four defenseman while averaging top-pair minutes.

He and his partner, Rasmus Ristolainen, were challenged immediately by Tortorella. The message hasn’t changed. Tortorella wanted more offense from Sanheim and Ristolainen to focus on fundamentals. The results weren’t immediate, but both defensemen are answering Tortorella. 

Now Sanheim is on pace to break his season-high in points (35; 2018-2019) when Philadelphia hosts the Boston Bruins on January 27th.

“That’s who he [Sanheim] is now. He’s a different person. That’s who he is. I didn’t get a sniff of that last year, and that’s who he’s become. I think he feels that good about himself to make plays like that. Right on through here, he’s eating up a ton of minutes for us, and he’s tried to make a difference every time he steps onto the ice.”

John Tortorella; 11/10/2023
Flyers' Travis Sanheim
Philadelphia Flyers’ Travis Sanheim, left, and Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Martinook collide during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You could argue that Sanheim was too involved in the offensive zone in the home-and-home back-to-back with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Scoring goals, exactly, is what I [would] like to be doing. Torts [Tortorella] wants all of us [defensemen] to be more aggressive, take more chances. That’s how we’re going to create offense.”

Travis Sanheim; 11/10/2023

Tortorella hasn’t wavered. As expected, the Flyers are susceptible to the odd-man rush on a defensive transition, but those are the risks Tortorella wants his defensemen to take. He doesn’t want to change that about the more aggressive approach:

“We’re playing our game. We’re certainly aware of some of the people they [the Penguins] have, but we’re not changing our style from team to team. You’re going to four different teams a week. We’re not changing our style. I just want to reinforce it; we’re going to try to execute our gameplan.”

John Tortorella; 12/2/2023

Sanheim has taken on the former Provorov role. He is playing on the top pair with Cam York, was featured on the powerplay until Ristolainen returned, and is one of the core pieces of the sixth-ranked penalty kill unit in the NHL. Among all defensemen, he is the most utilized, averaging 26:01 per game. Sanheim averages the most ice time than any player (excluding goaltenders,) in fact. His utilization acts as commentary for how much Tortorella trusts Sanheim, who has the freedom to surf aggressively on offense by design.

There is something to the leadership Sanheim brought to the roster in 2023-2024. This defense, which raised more questions before opening night, is more cohesive than when Tortorella had more proven commodities in 2022-2023.

In 25GP, Sanheim already tallied 17 points (2G, 15A). Each of his goals came at even strength, but what stands out is his playmaking skills on special teams, representing a third of his assist total. On the powerplay, he spread the puck to four different scorers (Konecny, Couturier, Tippett, and Foerster) while spotting Travis Konecny a late third-period shorthanded goal against the Dallas Stars. Certainly, Sanheim is off to a hot start and will remain a vital contributor in a Tortorella lineup.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)