Can young Flyers follow Sanheim's lead?


If the Flyers want to take strides in the right direction again, they don't have to look far for a good example of what needs to be done.

Significant turnarounds must be spurred by prospects becoming players, by young pieces graduating into impact performers.

You have to draft and develop. And you have to get contributions from younger players that aren't being paid top dollar yet.

Can that player make the leap into an NHL lineup? And when they struggle, can they grow from it?

Travis Sanheim has accomplished both and the Flyers will need him to continue to get better. They don't believe he has hit his peak.

Nor does Sanheim.

The 26-year-old defenseman was a bright spot in a dark 2021-22 season for the the Flyers. The club went 25-46-11 and had a staggering minus-87 goal differential, but Sanheim left the season with his game in a good spot. He took home two team awards: the Barry Ashbee Trophy (Flyers' most outstanding defenseman) and Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy (Flyers' most improved player).

"Toughest year mentally, for sure," Sanheim said at his end-of-the-season press conference in late April. "To be able to continue to keep playing and battle through, and yet, it felt like you were getting nowhere. Probably [would have been] easy to throw the towel in.

"In saying that, I’m not satisfied at all with my game and feel like there’s still more steps to be taken. We want to create a winning culture here and a winning environment. I've got to be a big part of taking that next step."

What's notable is Sanheim is a two-time winner of the Flyers' most improved award. He won the honor in 2018-19 — his first full season at the NHL level after a 49-game rookie year — but had his roughest, most challenging season in 2020-21. With Matt Niskanen's retirement, Sanheim had more put on his plate, being relied upon heavily at even strength and shorthanded. He finished with 15 points and a minus-22 rating while playing 21:53 minutes per game. The shortened season was a beast from a building-confidence perspective.

But it made him better.

"The first time I won it, I think it was my second season," Sanheim said of the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy. "So you get the rookie year and then you make the jump, where you’re more of an NHL player I would say in your second season, so it's pretty easy to see the improvement. I think this go-around, to win it and win the Barry Ashbee, as well, I think maybe means a little bit more in the sense that my game took another step in improving. To be voted on by the players means even more."

In 2021-22, the start of another two-year contract for Sanheim, he led all Flyers defensemen in assists (24) and was tied with Ivan Provorov for the lead in points (31). Following that career-worst minus-22 rating in 2020-21, Sanheim went on to record a team-best plus-9 mark, a team-best plus-10 on-ice goal differential at even strength and a career-high 22:58 minutes per game.

"What a year from him," Joel Farabee said. "If you’re looking at positives this year, I think Sanny’s definitely someone you would name. A guy that brought it every night. I know you guys see the game and watch how he’s grown as a player, but I really felt like there were some games he was dominating out there. Hopefully he can keep that up, he’s a great player and he’s a really important part of this team."

The Flyers didn't dole out a lot of money in free agency. Their offseason was not splashy. They didn't feel like they were there yet. No doubt, this is shaping up to be a transitional year with a new head coach that is known for getting more out of less. The club added around the margins this summer and is asking for younger players to show major improvement and seize opportunity. If that happens, maybe general manager Chuck Fletcher will then try to supplement things by looking externally for difference-making talent.

That could be the plan.

Farabee blossomed in 2020-21. Sanheim rebounded in 2021-22. These were bright spots from younger players.

But the Flyers need more than one a season.

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