NEW YORK — Is starting the season with three rookie defensemen asking too much?
Travis Sanheim might be making it possible.
“We got another good night of information," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said Monday after a 3-2 overtime preseason loss to the Rangers (see observations). "Those two young guys (Sanheim and Robert Hagg) played pretty well — Sanheim had a real impact on the hockey game tonight. We’re going to let these guys make those decisions.”
If the brain trust of Hakstol and Ron Hextall was expecting two of their three rookie defensemen to separate themselves during the preseason test run, well that hasn’t quite happened, as the 21-year-old Sanheim has displayed an offensive element that would give the Flyers a much-needed weapon from the blue line. Sanheim’s NHL-caliber slap shot, coupled with his mobility and ability to read plays in the offensive zone have set him apart from fellow rookies Hagg and Sam Morin.
“I’m slowly starting to build my game, get a lot more confidence and get comfortable playing with the guys around me,” Sanheim said. "I’m getting more comfortable with the team, systems, and players around me. It’s been good so far. Obviously, we wanted a different outcome tonight, but I like where my game’s at.”
If it wasn’t for Sanheim, the Flyers would have been shut out in each of their last two games, as he’s provided their only offense in overtime losses to the Bruins and Rangers. A week ago, it appeared all signs were pointing to Lehigh Valley and another year of AHL seasoning, but that’s when Hakstol noticed a change in Sanheim.
“I learned more about him five to six days ago,” Hakstol said. “He didn’t have a great night (preseason opener against Islanders). Sometimes you learn as much about a player and where he’s at coming off a night like that. It didn’t shake him. He came back and had a great practice the next day and he carried that into the next game. To me, that showed maturity on his part.”
Sanheim has continued to rise up the charts coming off a strong performance against the Islanders in Allentown, Pennsylvania, last Wednesday, and he’s rolled that over into the past two games, playing mostly with NHL regulars. What’s even more impressive is that Sanheim is having a tremendous offensive outburst despite seeing very little time on the team’s power play, as he logged just 36 seconds with the man advantage, a unit that came up empty once again and is now 0 for 14 over its last two games.
Still, captain Claude Giroux can’t see any reason why three rookie defensemen can’t make this team out of camp.
“You’ve seen them play. They can play,” Giroux said. “We have a lot of young D that are ready to play in the NHL, and they’re competing right now for a spot. For us, it’s fun to see because every day they’re doing stuff and it’s pretty amazing. It’s a long season — whoever’s hot, whoever’s playing good will have the opportunity to play.”
With Morin receiving his first night off from preseason action, Hakstol had Sanheim paired with Radko Gudas, while Hagg was working with Flyers top defenseman Ivan Provorov. Outside of a slow start and an unfortunate bounce on the Rangers' second goal, Hagg continued his steady play.
“I thought he didn’t have the cleanest start to a hockey game, but to his credit, he worked his way into the game,” Hakstol said. “The goal against — there’s a couple of things that happened before that that led to that play, but he had a hard-working night.”
You can be my wingman
Giroux’s much-anticipated left wing audition could be described as a good first night and worthy of a callback, whether that comes Tuesday night against the Rangers or Thursday against the Bruins.
Unofficially, the top line of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek saw 15 shifts together at even strength, and then chemistry appeared to grow as the game progressed.
“It was good," Giroux said. "As the game went on, I started to feel more comfortable. We had a lot of chances, just some mistakes that you don’t see during the season, like a 2-on-0 with Jake, usually our chemistry is better than that. As the game went on, our chemistry got better and we were able to find each other a little bit more."
Giroux and Voracek had a prime scoring opportunity in the opening period, but Giroux’s shot from the right side went just wide of the net. Combined, the Flyers' top line finished the night with a minus-2 rating and six shots while winning 67 percent of its faceoffs.
“Maybe there was a tendency to make one more pass instead of putting it on net and stopping at the net and looking for one of those greasy goals,” Hakstol said. “But overall, there’s some good things there. There were enough positives to see if it can grow.”
The No. 2 pick continues to settle into his role as the Flyers' No. 2 center. Once again, Nolan Patrick centered a line that included Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. Patrick’s defense has been a steady component of his game since camp began, and now the rookie is sprinkling in some offense. Patrick contributed the primary assist on Sanheim’s first goal, which came during 4-on-4 play in the first period.
“Those are the kind of things he can do,” Hakstol said. “That’s hockey sense. That’s knowing what’s around him and being a step ahead. He’s building. As the speed of the games go up, there’s always more to learn. I think over the last week, he’s done a little more offensively. Each and every night he’s impacted the game offensively in our last three games, and that’s been a real positive.”