Flyers

Flyers

It was March 10 and Travis Sanheim had been recalled under emergency conditions the night before a Saturday afternoon puck drop at the Wells Fargo Center.

He hadn't played an NHL game since Jan. 13.

The first task put on his plate: slow down the Western Conference's top-scoring offense and help quell a five-game losing streak in the midst of a playoff race.

With the moxie matching his first-round draft status, the 21-year-old delivered.

"He definitely had some confidence and some swagger," Travis Konecny said then after the Flyers beat the Jets, 2-1. "I've seen it out of Sanny before, he's played like that plenty of times."

The Flyers need that and more over the full course of 2018-19. Sanheim, now 22, may subtly be the team's most important defenseman when you outline the group.

There was justifiable concern surrounding the Flyers' blueliners entering Thursday night's regular-season opener. Aside from the team's dynamic top pair of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, the defense carried a troublesome vibe. During the preseason, newcomer Christian Folin looked the part of an extra man, Radko Gudas and Robert Hagg progressed slowly with hiccups, while injuries limited Andrew MacDonald and Sanheim to two and three games, respectively.

Not only that, each outing seemed to feature a noticeable breakdown. Following the seventh exhibition game of eight, head coach Dave Hakstol admitted the Flyers had to "sort out those two pairs" after play on the back end "wasn't nearly clean enough" in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers.

But, at this point, you know what you're getting with the Flyers' defense.

 

Provorov and Gostisbehere will play a ton and do a ton. MacDonald, 32, and Gudas, 28, are established in the sense that they probably won't change much, good or bad. And Hagg is a low-risk, stay-at-home guy who understands lighting up the box score isn't his game, unless it comes in the hits department.

Sanheim, though, is the wild card. The Flyers' defense can hold up just fine if the 2014 first-round selection takes healthy strides to stabilize the back end — because he can be a game-changer. When he was recalled last year, the Flyers countered their five-game skid with an 8-3-3 finish to the regular season, a 14-game stretch in which Sanheim never came out of the lineup.

He's a fluid skater with good size at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. His coverage and decisions have improved. There has always been an offensive element to his game, an area that we'll gradually see more of as opportunity grows.

Sanheim put up 16 points (one goal, 15 assists) and a plus-14 rating in 18 games last season with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley. In Thursday's opener, he made a nice play up ice to help create the Flyers' first tally of a 5-2 win over the Golden Knights.

He saw time on the penalty kill and finished as a plus-2.

That's a money effort the Flyers will take from one of their building blocks.

In the grand scheme, there's little question about Sanheim's future. But how fast he comes along makes him the surprising lynchpin to this defense.

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