Flyers

Travis Sanheim welcomes competition, 'coming to make the Flyers'

VOORHEES, N.J. — At development camp, Travis Sanheim was almost too developed.

He would skate through drills so naturally and fluidly, he could have been an instructor.

Unintentionally, he was in a way.

"It's definitely a teaching camp," Sanheim said last week. "Even the development coaches have talked to me, making sure I slow stuff down and show the younger guys how to do it properly, not necessarily doing everything at full speed."

Sanheim understood the importance of leading by example at his fourth development camp, but there was no reason to feel sorry for appearing ahead of the curve.

That's where Sanheim is.

Which made for a slight paradox over the six-day course. Undoubtedly, the 21-year-old defenseman wanted to be among the organization's prospects, sharpening and sculpting his game just like the rest.

But there's no question Sanheim's yearning for a much different camp — September with the big boys, because he's now one of them.

"I feel like I'm ready, I'm going to compete for a spot," Sanheim said. "Until somebody tells me differently, that's my goal. I'm coming to make the Flyers."

Under general manager Ron Hextall's philosophy of earn what you get, Sanheim will have his chance. But is there room? The Flyers are at a numbers crunch on the blue line. There is expected to be two spots open, presumably for Robert Hagg and Sam Morin, both of whom acquitted themselves well during their April NHL debuts.

Sanheim isn't conceding anything, though.

"It's going to come down to camp," he said.

"This year, obviously there's going to be some spots available, and we're going to be fighting for the job."

It's hard to deny his readiness. The 2014 first-round pick has done what has been necessary through his development path. He's added noticeable strength, going from around 172 pounds when drafted to a sturdy 200 currently.

"I watched Travis Sanheim — you see him, his first development camp he looked like a young boy," Hextall said. "And you look at him now, and he almost looks like a man. He's just more upright, you can tell his body is more linked up, he's got a stronger core, he's more upright when he skates."

The 6-foot-4 Sanheim weighed the same at 2016 development camp, a possible sign he's where he needs to be physically. Hextall believes weight must still be gained and Sanheim doesn't disagree, but did point out how he fared just fine last season in his first full year with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"Obviously, I'm going to want to continue to keep gaining strength and add that to my game, but I played pro this year and it didn't faze me at all," he said. "The strength, I think I was right there with everyone else, was able to compete and battle in 1-on-1s against pro players."

With the Phantoms, his defensive principles and two-way awareness took positive strides over time. Offense has always been Sanheim's game. In his final two junior seasons, he totaled 133 points in 119 regular-season games. That was against kids in the WHL.

In 2016-17, he saw the change against men in the AHL. He managed to collect 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) in 76 games for a plus-7 rating and knows he can do more, but the AHL helped him focus on picking his spots.

"I went over numerous video sessions with the coaches, watching clips of stuff that if I was to look at it now, it would just look silly," Sanheim said with a laugh. "I'm standing on top of the goalie in the crease, there's just no need for that as a defenseman and especially at the pro level.

"I wasn't able to do the same things that I was able to do in junior. I had to learn some valuable lessons in the first few months, but I think towards the end of the season, you could see that I had gained my confidence again and was starting to play the game that I wanted to play.

"I know to play at this next level, I'm going to have to be just as good in my D-zone as I am in the offensive zone, so for me, if I'm not contributing offensively, I just want to make sure I'm bringing the full two-way game."

Hextall noticed Sanheim's adjustment period.

"He did a really good job last year from start to finish — got a lot better," he said. "The adjustment on the first month, month and a half, where he was going too much up ice, a little bit irresponsible and all of a sudden, a month, month and a half in, figured that part out. That was a huge step for him. He got better, he got better throughout the year and he needs to continue on that."

As pleased as Hextall has been with the development, it sounds like Sanheim's jump to the NHL will ultimately come down to the aforementioned size and opportunity.

"You go from an American League level to trying to make the NHL team, there's a speed, a strength thing that wounds up another two notches," Hextall said. "He just has to continue to do what he's doing and get better every day.

"Your reaction time to closing on a guy, whether to close or not close, everything gets ramped up. It's the whole mind, the hockey sense, the strength, the being in the proper position, because if you're caught out of position at the NHL level and it's an elite player, you're in big trouble. In the American League, you can get away with it.

"There's still some fine-tuning that he needs to do and all those young defensemen need to do, and we'll see where we're at in September."

Sanheim knows where he wants to be. And he's not just saying it — he believes it.

"I'm going to obviously do what they tell me," he said, "but I'm coming to camp to make the team."