Flyers

Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

ap-travis-sanheim-flyers-observations.jpg
AP Images

Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

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.

Why?

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.

Add a stellar debut to Flyers' month to remember

uspresswire-flyers-petr-mrazek.jpg
USA Today Images

Add a stellar debut to Flyers' month to remember

BOX SCORE

In his first start in a Flyers sweater, the newly acquired Petr Mrazek upstaged former Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Mrazek turned back 19 shots as the Flyers held off the Blue Jackets, 2-1, Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. 

The Flyers came back to win after trailing entering the third period. They improved to 3-14-3 in that situation. They have earned a point in 10 straight games with a record of 8-0-2.

Claude Giroux broke the ice with his 21st goal of the game and Nolan Patrick scored the game-winner on the power play with 10:11 remaining in regulation. 

Artemi Panarin scored the Blue Jackets’ lone goal, an unassisted marker just as the Flyers’ power play had expired.

The Flyers had to make due without Travis Konecny. The top-line winger took pregame warmups, but was scratched with a foot injury he suffered in Tuesday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens. 

• Roughly a minute after Mrazek came up with a five-star save on a shorthanded breakaway, Panarin broke a scoreless tie. Panarin popped out of the box just in time to intercept Ivan Provorov’s pass to Andrew MacDonald at the blue line, which led to a 2-on-1 the other way. The incredibly-skilled Panarin never looked at the net until the very last second and sniped a shot over Mrazek’s blocker side shoulder that he had very little chance at stopping. 

• Two goals on two spectacular snipes. Giroux matched Panarin’s effort with a pinpoint effort that tied the game at 1-1. With Bobrovsky electing to drop into the butterfly, Giroux went high to Bobrovsky’s glove with such a quick release. The play opened up as Sean Couturier caught the attention of three Blue Jacket defenders, which opened up a lane down the slot for Giroux to bury the shot.  

• Patrick seems to be fitting in quite well on that top power-play unit, filling the role occupied by Wayne Simmonds. Patrick was stationed down in front when he quickly backhanded Shayne Gostisbehere’s point shot to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead. 

• An interesting sequence saw Couturier break out of the box and then skate with the puck into the Columbus zone, but for some reason the officials blew the whistle as the Blue Jackets were caught with too many men on the ice. Two minutes later, Panarin broke out of the box and scored.

• Thirty seconds into the game, Michael Raffl, who was playing on the top line, took a hooking penalty to give the Flyers an early power play. Playing Raffl on that top line seemed to be the obvious choice with Konecny unable to play. Raffl brings a different brand of game. While he doesn’t possess Konecny’s speed, Raffl makes the No. 1 line tougher to defend in the cycle game. That was a heavy line defensively for Columbus to contain.  

• It was a tale of two first-period power plays. On their first opportunity, the Flyers committed unforced errors and never had a quality shot on net. In their second attempt, they were buzzing around the net. Giroux lasered a cross-ice pass to Jakub Voracek, who tried to score on a one-timer. Against 98 percent of the other goaltenders in the league, that shot gets through.

• Jordan Weal was whistled for interference with 5:19 remaining in the first period — the first penalty called against the Flyers since Feb. 13 against the Devils. That snapped the Flyers’ streak of not having to kill a penalty at nearly 230 minutes. An underworked Flyers’ PK did not allow Columbus a SOG in killing off the Jackets’ power play. 

• Defensively, the Flyers gave up very, very little. They held Columbus without a shot on net for 14:23 of the first period. 

• Robert Hagg had a horrific turnover playing the puck from along the left boards in his own zone. Hagg’s errant pass to the middle of ice was intercepted by fourth-line call-up Zac Dalpe, who got a shot on net. Had that been Panarin or one of the Jackets’ skilled players, the Flyers could have easily trailed, 1-0, after the first period.

• Twenty-two seconds into the second period, Mrazek faced his first real shot from the slot as Zach Werenski cut in from the blue line. Early on, Mrazek was very quick at resetting himself and positioning his body to cut down the angle. In the first 25 minutes, Mrazek appeared locked in and focused.

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

usa-dave-hakstol.jpg
USA Today Images

Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

To the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, today’s brand of hockey is simply unrecognizable, and perhaps to some, even unacceptable.

When the Flyers take the ice Thursday against the Blue Jackets, the clock will be ticking on one of the most un-Bully-esque streaks in franchise history. 

The Flyers have somehow managed to play their last 215 minutes and 14 seconds without having to kill off a single penalty — a stretch of hockey that extends to the second period of a game against the Devils on Feb. 13 when Sean Couturier was whistled for tripping. 

Not only is the box an uninhabited area for the Flyers recently, but it’s also uncharted territory. They’re just the second team in NHL history to exhibit that kind of discipline since the league began keeping penalty records in 1977-78.

If this somehow continues, the guys at Comcast-Spectacor’s premium seating division could be looking at a prime opportunity to add a luxury suite at ice level. Fast food restaurant chain Jack in the Box would be the perfect sponsor.

The Flyers' penalty kill has also improved slightly by virtue of not having to kill penalties, from 30th in the league to now ranked 28th, still holding steady at 75 percent, but more importantly, their commitment to steer clear of the sin bin now has them ranked seventh in the NHL in the number of times they’ve been shorthanded.

The reasons behind their whistle-free work ethic can be attributed to a number of areas. 

For one, the Flyers have made the necessary adjustments to the league’s new slashing penalty, where a stick anywhere near the hands has resulted in a two-minute minor. Secondly, the entire team, and especially rookie Nolan Patrick, who went through a tough stretch earlier this month, has been very mindful of not committing high-sticking, hooking and other lazy infractions when chasing down the puck carrier.  

“I don’t think we’ve dominated puck possession over the last couple of games,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “But when we haven’t had it, we’ve worked hard to get it back the right way. At this time of year, it’s moving your feet, trying to get above plays and trying to check the right way.”

Secondly, as the season enters the drive towards the playoffs, NHL referees have shown a tendency to allow players to decide the outcome and not enforce the game as tightly as they did over the first three months of the season. In the first 30 games, the Flyers were forced to kill off an average of 3.4 power play opportunities per game. Over their last 30 contests, the number has been reduced significantly to 2.33.

More importantly, Dave Hakstol’s team is better equipped this season to play more effectively 5-on-5 and in all even strength situations, which was a point of emphasis after missing the playoffs a year ago. The Flyers' goal differential this season is plus-11 at even strength, whereas last season it was a minus-19.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job 5-on-5,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “I think you have to realize that most of the game is going to be played 5-on-5 and at even strength, and you have to generate in those situations throughout the rest of the year and into the playoffs.”

Even if the Flyers can’t maintain this unimaginable penalty-free pace, they clearly have more success and their penalty kill is much more efficient when they’re forced to kill off just a handful of penalties, as the chart below illustrates.

PK Attempts   Record     Kill %
2 or fewer        18-8-1        87.5%

3-4                      9-9-5         68.0%

5 or more          4-2-4         75.0%

In the 27 games where the Flyers have killed two or fewer power play opportunities, the success rate is nearly 88 percent, and they’re winning 67 percent of their games. They’ve been able to extend their energy throughout the 60-plus minutes while rolling four lines more consistently.

“If you have to kill three or more minor penalties, you’re at a little bit of risk, but you can get the job done,” Hakstol said. “When you get in the five, six range now you’re draining the bench, you’re draining energy, and you’re taking guys out of rhythm who aren’t killing penalties. There’s a lot of things that domino off of that.”

All of which conserves energy and creates good habits as the Flyers inch closer towards the postseason.