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Meeting Tortorella’s Challenge: Sanheim Rising as Others Fall

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Travis Sanheim, Philadelphia Flyers

Travis Sanheim’s eight-year extension with the Philadelphia Flyers won’t kick in until next season. He is finishing up the two-year deal he signed during the offseason in 2021, and the new deal carries nearly a $2 million raise from his current $4.675 million cap hit. With that kind of increase and security, one would expect Sanheim to take another step forward.

It didn’t start that way, however. Sanheim did not register a point in the first 10 games. He didn’t score his first goal of the season until his 17th game. Scoring isn’t everything but digging deeper into the early-season numbers didn’t do Sanheim any favors, either.

Through the first 10 games of the season, Sanheim had the second most ice time and held the worst CF% among defensemen with similar ice times. The team was outscored 4-1 and had an expected goals against (xGA) of 7.18. That translates to an expected goals percentage of just 38.33%.

It didn’t hurt the Flyers, as they started the season 5-3-2.

Now, he wasn’t the only defenseman with poor numbers. No other Flyers blue liner had a higher Corsi than Tony DeAngelo’s 42.90 CF%. But for a player who signed a massive extension just before opening night, those aren’t the numbers anyone wanted to see, especially for someone who is expected to drive play. 

Positive results

If we increase the number of games to just before Sanheim scored his first of the season, we can see the numbers trending in the right direction. Of course, more ice time means more of a chance to even things out. But it still allows us to see Sanheim’s rise. It still paints a pretty bad picture, though, when players like Justin Braun (46.01 CF%) and Nick Seeler (45.47 CF%) have higher numbers than you.

But we can really see things start to turn after Sanheim scored his first goal of the season. In the last 13 games, Sanheim has had the highest numbers (51.00 CF%) among all regular defensemen. He is the only one with a CF% favoring him more than opponents. His XGF% is also much better than where he started. He now sits at 52.63 during the last 14 games. 

In fact, he is the only defenseman that hasn’t been outscored while on the ice, though it’s only a 10-9 advantage. The numbers even out in high-danger chances (43-43) and the Flyers have slightly more scoring chances (108-104). So while they are giving up an excessive number in each category, they are also managing to answer back.

His offensive numbers have jumped as well. After going pointless in nine games and goalless in 17, Sanheim racked up nine points in nine games. That’s more like the player the Philadelphia Flyers wanted to have around long-term. He has been pointless in the last four games, but that doesn’t discount the rise in play-driving we have seen. 

Meeting Tortorella’s expectations

The Philadelphia Flyers are still losing games at an alarming rate, but that is expected to happen with the lack of high-end talent this team has. It is more about seeing which players are able to stick it out on a John Tortorella-coached team. He has said time and time again that one of his most important jobs is finding out which players can help them now and which could be on their way out.

We have seen the way Tortorella has been riding Kevin Hayes to be better defensively. Morgan Frost was compared to a toilet seat based on his lack of consistency. Rasmus Ristolainen was benched because of his play. Sanheim has also drawn the ire of his coach as well. Tortorella has expressed his need to see more from the 26-year-old as recently as last week. And that was after a two-point night from him.

So it is more than just chipping in offensively that matters to Tortorella. He is working to change the identity of this team. And that includes better play defensively. Sanheim has found a way to rise to that challenge as of late. Now it’s about staying there and not falling victim to the consequences.

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