ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Flyers' general manager who was able to construct an entire blue line through trades and free-agent signings was once asked, "What's the number one trait you look for out of a defenseman?"
Paul Holmgren’s response was decisive and to the point. Paraphrasing, Holmgren said, "The one who can get the puck out of his zone as quickly as possible."
As much as the game of hockey has been broken down into advanced metrics and analytics, it’s rather simple at its core. The more time a team spends in its end of the ice, the greater likelihood it'll be on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
The AHL playoffs have served as an ideal test site for Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, who have been stalwarts throughout the Phantoms' postseason run.
However, Game 3 at the PPL Center Wednesday night further exemplified the necessary strides the Flyers' defensive prospects must take in order to develop into reliable, everyday NHL blueliners.
Oftentimes, less is more when you have the puck in the defensive end of the ice, and it took roughly 62 seconds into the game on Sanheim’s opening shift for the 22-year-old to make a major gaffe that gave the Toronto Marlies a 1-0 lead.
Instead of making the simple play of a quick pass up the boards, Sanheim elected to keep it, reversing his field and was suddenly stripped with the attacking forward trailing. Roughly two seconds elapsed from the moment Sanheim lost the puck to when it was behind goalie Alex Lyon in the net.
“On that particular play, we have full possession of the puck and the opportunity to advance it," Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said. "Instead, we go back behind the net to where their guy is. That’s just playing into their hands. In that situation, and in a few of our breakouts, there were opportunities to move forward with the puck and we didn’t.”
However, the gaffes involving the Sanheim-Myers pairing didn’t stop there. Sanheim was stripped of the puck at his own blue line during the first Phantoms' power play. Myers inexcusably lost his edge skating with the puck through the neutral zone. Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson muscled his way around Sanheim to generate a quality scoring chance, and then another terrible pass and turnover inside the Phantoms' zone.
And that all came in the first seven minutes of the game.
If Dave Hakstol had been behind the bench (he was actually watching from the PPL Center press box), Sanheim is likely sitting in front of him for the remainder of the game. That’s essentially what transpired in mid-January at the Prudential Center in New Jersey when Sanheim’s play landed him back in the minors for a month and a half.
Chalk this up as one bad game. Game 3 of the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals was simply another teaching moment as the Phantoms were blown out, 5-0, falling behind 3-0 in the series. Both players will be back there together logging close to 25 minutes as the Phantoms try to avoid elimination Friday night.
As exciting as it is to watch Sanheim and Myers generate offense within the Phantoms' system with their size and skating ability, there’s no way Hakstol and the Flyers can depend on that pairing defensively next season. Together, they’re still young, inexperienced and unreliable.
If anything, expect the competition between Myers and Sanheim as something worth watching when Flyers camp opens in September. Myers has closed the gap in his first full season in the AHL.
And the guy who can clean up their play defensively will likely be the one that starts next season with the Flyers.