Flyers

Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

ap-usa-robert-hagg-sam-morin-travis-sanheim-flyers.jpg
AP Images/USA Today Images

Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

If that “mirror, mirror on the wall” actually existed, Flyers fans would be lined up right now wanting to know, “Who’s the most deserving of them all?”

And rightfully so.

Unfortunately, without that magical piece of glass from the movie “Snow White,” you may not get the straightforward answer you’re looking for. "Preseason 2017," for lack of a better title, will be remembered as “The Battle on the Blue Line,” and now that we’ve cycled through the credits, culminating with the final game against the Islanders, it appears as if a sequel is already in the works.

It was an intense competition revolving around the team’s talented, homegrown defense. Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim competed for the two vacated positions. Sanheim displayed an impressive and rare offensive skill set with a team-high-tying three goals, but he flashed shortcomings with his penchant for turnovers. Morin was strong in all phases, most notably his imposing physical presence, while also showing a tendency to contribute offensively. Morin’s mishaps, perhaps not nearly as glaring as Sanheim’s, were mostly positional play. Hagg was perhaps the least flashy and noticeable of the trio, but remained consistent throughout.

All three rookies had their bags ready to go Sunday night — destination unknown at the time. Either they would be joining the rest of the Flyers team on the charter to San Jose or they would be carpooling to Allentown as they begin another season in the AHL. Now with the upper-body injury to Shayne Gostisbehere, all three rookies are California dreaming, and more importantly, California unpacking.

If "Ghost" suits up in the season opener, then in all likelihood, only Hagg will actually crack the lineup to start, and that will remain a head-scratcher for a fan base that's been asked to sit on its collective hands.

And they’re not alone. Even members of the Flyers' Cup teams have expressed to me personally a desire to see the kids play. The decision is even more puzzling to guys like Morin and Sanheim, who both believe they did everything possible to earn their spot.

“Yeah, I’m very excited,” Morin said Monday. “I think I had a pretty good camp. I deserve it. We’re going to see what happens. I’m just living one day at a time. I’m just really excited to prove I can be in the NHL and be a regular.”

For Hextall, this is nothing more than business as usual. He rarely deviates from the script that comes straight out of Hollywood, just not crafted by Disney.

During his time with the Kings, then-general manager Dean Lombardi nurtured his defensive corps in much the same manner.

Alec Martinez — Three seasons of college hockey followed by 2½ seasons with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Jake Muzzin — Four years in the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) proceeded with 2½ years with the Monarchs. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Slava Voynov — Three full seasons (266 games) with the Monarchs. Entered the NHL at age 22.

Martinez and Muzzin remain core pieces to the Kings' defensive unit and Voynov was equally as talented, perhaps even more so. However, Voynov was indefinitely suspended for allegedly assaulting his wife, and hasn’t suited up in an NHL game since October 2014. He has since returned to Russia to play in the KHL.

Compare those players with Hagg, 22, Morin, 22, and Sanheim, 21, and you can see Hextall will not serve up one of his defensemen until they are properly aged to his standards. You can place Drew Doughty and Ivan Provorov into a category of all their own.

During his brief press gathering Sunday night following the decision that Oskar Lindblom would begin his North American career with the Phantoms, Hextall had this to say: “American League time hasn’t hurt one player in the history of professional hockey.” In other words, to Hextall, no one regresses playing in the minors … ever.

It seems fitting the Flyers will begin their season just a few hours away from Napa Valley, because Hextall refuses to pluck one of his guys off the vine until the time is absolutely right. There’s no one right way to serve up an NHL defenseman, but there is, in Hextall’s vision, a certain recipe for disaster. Don’t think for a moment the ingredients that go into that will ever change, especially now that Hextall just recently hired Lombardi, who I’m sure packed up his “How to Build a Stanley Cup Champion” cookbook and brought it with him.

When asked about his three impressive, young defensemen specifically, Hextall smiled and said, “When you look at the career of a young player, going to the minors is OK, even if its for a couple years. It’s not a death sentence. You’re still a pro hockey player and you’re still one injury, one day away from a call-up. It’s not as disastrous as you try to paint it, maybe.”

Even Hextall understands that sometimes the best-laid plans have to shelved. It was an injury to Mark Streit that opened the door for Gostisbehere, who burst onto the scene two years ago and never looked back, despite just 21 games of AHL experience.

When will Morin and Sanheim earn their spot, permanently?

If you have a magic 8-ball lying around, now would be a good time to dust it off, and give it a good shake.

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes.

Dougherty
If Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Winnipeg confirmed anything, it's the Flyers cannot break up their top line. They might not be able to score much, but their only scoring is coming from Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

The Couturier line accounts for 48 percent of the Flyers' offense, or 25 goals. Factor the defense and top line together, and that's 59 percent, as the blue line has produced six tallies this season.

Of the 21 goals the Flyers have scored that do not come from the top line or blue line, 12 have come from two players, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula. Simmonds hasn't scored in 11 games, and Filppula has one goal in his past nine games.

Two lines have stayed intact since Day 1 — the Couturier line and the fourth line of Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl. Head coach Dave Hakstol has been hesitant about breaking up his fourth line, and rightfully so. Laughton, Leier and Raffl have chemistry, and they're almost always cycling in the offensive zone.

Nolan Patrick just returned after missing three weeks because of a "suspected" concussion and played sparingly against the Jets. He should help the Flyers' scoring woes, but he won't solve them. I think it's time to break up the fourth line, and based on the Winnipeg game, it looks like a possibility Hakstol is considering.

Here's why. Raffl played on the second power-play unit against the Jets, which was a first this season. Perhaps Hakstol didn't want to throw Patrick back into the fire and watched the rookie's minutes.

Breaking up lines Nos. 2, 3 and 4 is the best course of action. Travis Konecny is struggling with confidence, Jordan Weal hasn't been great, and those are two players the Flyers need to get going. It's time to end the Dale Weise in the top-nine experiment.

With what the Flyers have, here is what I would do:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Michael Raffl
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Dale Weise

Hall
There's no need to panic if you're the Flyers.

First, you finally have a no-doubt-about-it top line. Voracek, Couturier and Giroux have blended beautifully and are doing damage, as the Flyers entered Friday one of only three teams in the NHL with a trio of players over 20 points each. Don't break that up just because there's an imbalance below it. 

And second, it's a long season. Ups and downs are common and things can change quickly. Just look at last season. The Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins and scored the NHL's second-most goals through the first two months of 2016-17. As we all know, they didn't make the postseason and finished as a bottom-third goal-scoring club.

The Flyers simply need to continue experimenting with their middle six and see what eventually works best. A little patience was going to be required when you're relying on a 19-year-old rookie in Patrick, a 20-year-old still finding himself at this level in Konecny and a 25-year-old facing his first full NHL season in Weal.

And let's not forget, the defense is exceptionally young with two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim), a 20-year-old leader (Ivan Provorov) and a third-year player coming off a sophomore slump (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But back to the forwards. 

If you recall, a stretch from Oct. 10-17 featured Filppula centering Weal and Simmonds on the second line, with Patrick centering Konecny and Weise on the third unit. It resulted in a pretty productive three-game span in which the Flyers picked up two wins and outscored the opposition 18-9.

I really liked the dynamic of that middle six. And the Flyers can now return to it with Patrick suiting up. He will be eased back into heavier minutes, but he can make a difference when healthy and comfortable. Patrick and Konecny can still play plenty of minutes on the third line with less pressure and potentially more favorable matchups.

We've seen Weal and Simmonds work well together, and Filppula adds smarts and steadiness down the middle.

But the important thing to remember is the Flyers are only 19 games into an 82-game grind. Scoring can come and go at times, and there's no reason it can't come down the line.

So, here's what I like best for the Flyers right now:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Dale Weise
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Travis Sanheim's defense quickly progressing on the fly

ap-travis-sanheim.jpg
AP Images

Travis Sanheim's defense quickly progressing on the fly

The Flyers had a complete off day Friday and you couldn’t blame Travis Sanheim if he wanted to lounge around all day and just scroll through the TV channels.

For the first time since Philadelphia became his permanent residence, Sanheim now has a connection to the outside world. His television is finally hooked up to hundreds of channels. When asked if there’s one show or program he’s looking forward to watching Sanheim replied, “Just hockey games. I just love to watch hockey, even if we’re not playing.”

Until now, that’s been Sanheim’s only option.

With the help of video coach Adam Patterson, the Flyers have wired each player’s home so they can review each game, and more importantly, shuttle through shift-by-shift so players like Sanheim can perform some self-assessment when they’re not at the rink. 

Travis will probably go back and evaluate the second-period play during Thursday night’s game against the Jets when he lost control of the puck at the blueline, couldn’t recover and was caught up ice, which led to Winnipeg scoring a 2-on-1 goal, cutting the Flyers lead to 2-1.   

“I think I have a good ability to turn the page when I do make mistakes, whether its big or small and not letting it affect and creep into my game,” Sanheim said. “Right now, I’m just focusing on the little areas of my game defensively and trying to make smart reads and not try to give up too much defensively.”

There has been a significant progression in Sanheim’s game just over the past few weeks coming off some early season growing pains starting in his NHL debut in Los Angeles. There have been some coverage and positional breakdowns, but like any rookie, he’s beginning to clean up those areas of his game. 

After the 4-game road trip to begin the season, Sanheim was pulled for a few games in favor of Brandon Manning, but he was reinserted in the game against the Predators and hasn’t been a healthy scratch since. 

“Sanny just keeps becoming more and more consistent and more and more comfortable,” said head coach Dave Hakstol. “Travis is a player that really had to earn his way onto this team. Everybody does, but coming into camp he just put one day after another of good performances and he’s continued that as we’ve gone on into the regular season here. He’s an exciting young player.”

“I’m starting to settle in a little more, Sanheim said. “I’m happy with how my play has been growing as a player over the last couple of weeks. I think just my confidence. Being able to make plays with the puck, seeing the ice.” 

The numbers also suggest the defensive aspect of his game is coming together. After a rocky month of October that saw him finish with a minus-6 rating, Sanheim has bounced back in November and is currently a plus-2. While positionally he’s still learning the game at the NHL level, he has shown tremendous control with the puck on his stick. 

At 5-on-5 play, Sanheim has been credited with just four giveaways in nearly 226 minutes of ice time, or a ratio of one giveaway every 56:29 of ice time, which is by far, the best on the team. Comparatively, Shayne Gostisbehere has struggled in this area recently and has 14 giveaways this season in almost 262 minutes, an average of one giveaway every 18:47. 

While we’re still waiting to see the dynamic element of Sanheim’s offensive game that he displayed during the preseason, he’s picking his spots and finding those seams when he can take advantage of the defense. As Travis found out, the recent home-and-home series against the Wild was not one of those opportunities when he was held without a shot in both games. 

“You learn how little space you have out there,” Sanheim said. “Just the other night against Minnesota, how good they are defensively. You don’t get a lot of space. When you get your chances, you got to try and make the most of them.

“Obviously, I’m not allowed to do the offensive stuff that I could in junior and skating the puck up. I think it’s something I learned last year was making a good first pass and having an ability to read the play and jump up and find seams in areas that create space and offense as well.”

Thursday, more than 50 family and friends made the three-hour drive from Elkhorn, Manitoba, to Winnipeg to watch Travis play for the first time.

They may not notice it right away, but the kid from the tiny town on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border is already making great strides in a short amount of time in his first full NHL season.