Defenseman and prized prospect Travis Sanheim will start playing some big minutes again.
It just won’t be with the Flyers right now.
On Monday, Sanheim was reassigned to AHL Lehigh Valley as the front office also recalled Mark Alt to take Sanheim’s spot on the active roster.
Trust and development.
With the Flyers playing some of their best hockey of the season with wins in eight of their last nine games and the increased importance of gaining necessary points in an air-tight division (as of Monday morning, the Flyers held the East's first wild-card spot with 54 points, one behind Columbus for third in the Metro, two behind New Jersey for second and just seven behind first-place Washington), Sanheim had been relegated as the seventh defenseman and had served as a healthy scratch in eight of those nine games.
“He comes out of the lineup and the team plays well,” general manager Ron Hextall said recently of the 21-year-old blueliner. “Like most teams when things are going well, you really don’t want to change too much. If you look at the whole year with Travis, I think he’s played well with us. He’s had his moments, but he’s a young player and that’s going to happen. I don’t like him sitting and coaches don’t like him sitting, and I’m sure he doesn’t like sitting.”
Prior to the Devils/Capitals weekend series the Flyers swept, head coach Dave Hakstol was asked about the possibility of utilizing an 11 forward-seven defensemen combination as Tyrell Goulbourne has been used sparingly since his call-up. But Hakstol made it clear he wasn’t going to make concessions to accommodate one player.
“We’re not going to do anything to get anybody in the lineup at this point in time,” Hakstol said. “It can’t solely be about that. If that’s a scenario that’s best for our team, then we’ll consider it. What’s the right combination for our team to win a game that day?”
Coming out of the Christmas break, Hakstol started shortening the length of Sanheim’s leash. The rookie played 14:42 of the Panthers game (a 3-2 loss) on Dec. 28. Brandon Manning was fully healed and ready to return from a hand injury the next night in Tampa, a 5-3 decision the Flyers took from the league-best Lightning.
After missing the next five games, Sanheim received another chance with the Flyers playing their first game against the Devils out of the bye week on Jan. 13. All it took was one play in which Sanheim stepped up to check his man along the boards. He subsequently lost his stick, and by the time he grabbed it, the Devils converted an easy goal to take a 1-0 lead.
That came during Sanheim’s second shift as he finished the game playing a season-low 6:02, including just one 18-second shift in the third period.
“They’ve got to earn the trust of their teammates and the coaches, and sometimes that’s a process,” Hextall said. “Some of what Travis is going through is good for Travis. There’s a lot you learn out there. Part of it is the life lesson of you have to earn things. Things aren’t going to be handed to you. Just because you’re a first-round pick or a highly paid guy, you have to learn things. You don’t come out of college and become a CEO. You have to pay your dues, and you have to earn what you’re going to get.”
Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere learned those life lessons the hard way last season as both young players were pulled out of the lineup after their performance lagged. Hextall believes Sanheim will eventually bounce back and reflect at his rookie season as a valuable learning experience.
“Sometimes the only way they learn is by missing a shift or having their ice cut back a bit or getting sat out at some point,” Hextall said. “Most players have gotten sat out in their career. If you ask most guys, not at the time, they say it was a good lesson. There are a lot of things our young guys are learning right now, not only at this level, but at Lehigh.”
Gostisbehere and Konecny are playing arguably some of the best hockey of their careers right now.
Even if Sanheim has more upside and potential than Manning, the veteran has proven to be more reliable defensively and has even been more opportunistic in the offensive end. In a twist of fate, Sanheim's offensive upside is a big reason why Hextall selected him with a first-round pick in 2014. Sanheim has one goal and four assists in 35 games played this season.
“You've got to get stronger. You make a mistake and if you can’t rebound from it, you're probably not going to be at this level for very long,” Hextall said. “There’s learning curves all along the way. You can’t look at everything in a vacuum. There’s a small picture and there’s a big picture.”
Hextall is right. At this critical point of the NHL season, the bigger picture of winning outweighs the smaller picture of player development.