One of the growing discussions as Philadelphia Flyers training camp nears is Travis Sanheim earning a roster spot. The 17th pick in the 2014 Draft enjoyed a 37-point rookie season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms last year and improved as the season went along.
At this year’s development camp he was a clear standout and of the defensive prospects that are still just prospects, Sanheim has the highest potential.
The problem is that Sanheim isn’t the only prospect competing for a spot on the Flyers’ blueline. Sam Morin and Robert Hagg have been waiting for an opportunity longer than Sanheim and Philippe Myers has also been making a case in rookie camp.
Sanheim’s in the mix, but what are his actual chances?
General manager Ron Hextall has always practiced patience, but said he wouldn’t block a prospect who’s ready for the NHL. So that just means Sanheim has to prove to be an NHL player, right? Unfortunately for him, it’s not so easy as that.
Besides the four prospects vying for a spot, there are five defensemen returning from last year’s roster: Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning.
Gostisbehere, Provorov and Gudas are locks. I know fans will hate to hear this, but so is MacDonald. The Flyers won’t run a defense consisting of three rookies and one sophomore. Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol have consistently valued MacDonald in the lineup.
So even if Sanheim does play like an NHL regular, there’s only two spots open. The Flyers will probably carry seven defensemen, but none of the prospects will be the extra blueliner. That will be Manning’s spot.
Again, it comes back to the four prospects.
Although Myers lasted a long time in training camp last season, it’s hard to imagine Hextall playing a defenseman that isn’t Provorov without some AHL seasoning. He’s always felt that there’s lessons to learn in that league.
Essentially, it comes down to a three-way race for two open spots.
Besides Sanheim, Morin carries the highest pedigree. He was selected in the first round of the 2013 Draft and has two years of AHL play under his belt.
However, it’s his size that has brought most of the Flyers’ attention. He measures in at 6-foot-7 and has never been afraid to use it. That’s been shown with the Phantoms and even in the rookie game as recent as last night.
Although some fans have soured on him a bit, Philly seems to have a clear plan to turn him into a defensive stalwart.
Hagg has spent even more time with the Phantoms: three full seasons, a part of a fourth and 202 games. At 22 years old, he’s already a veteran at that level.
But it’s been a slow progression for Hagg. After a 20-point rookie season, he fell to 10 in his second year, but improved mightily last season and recorded 15 points in 58 games. Him and Morin were rewarded with one game at the NHL level.
With Morin and Hagg’s track already shown in reaching the NHL, it’s clear Hextall has planned another year in the AHL for Sanheim. It took both Morin and Hagg to hit 22 years old for them to be seriously considered for the Flyers. Sanheim is 21.
Another thing working against Sanheim is the fact that his strongest talent — offense — is already created by Gostisbehere and Provorov on defense. That doesn’t mean more blueline offense isn’t needed, but it’s not dire at this point. Another year to work on defense can only help Sanheim.
But each prospect is different and it’s entirely possible Sanheim is ready for the NHL a year earlier than Morin and Hagg.
Players won’t and shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum, but it’s going to come down to training camp for those three. Morin and Hagg were valued more last season since they earned one-game NHL stints, but that could change in the preseason.
Sanheim has been sucking all the spotlight of late with development and rookie camp, but don’t forget that Hagg and Morin are professionals and want to play with the Flyers just as much as Sanheim. There won’t be any pushovers when it comes to the defense — at least with the prospects.
If Sanheim is going to make the team he’s going need to play close to the level Provorov played at in last year’s preseason and hope that one of Morin or Hagg slips. It’s not impossible, but the odds aren’t in his favor.