Travis Sanheim arrived to the American Hockey League fresh off a third season patrolling the blue line for Calgary in Canadian juniors. The 2015-16 campaign saw him accumulate 15 goals and 53 assists over 52 games and constant chatter for the Bill Hunter Trophy which honors the best defenseman in the entire Western Hockey League. Those 68 points were good enough for fourth among all league blueliners.
Ever since Shayne Gostisbehere received his permanent recall to the National Hockey League in mid-November, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms have desperately needed that one defenseman who could adequately carry out the initial phase of head coach Scott Gordon’s “offense from defense” philosophy.
Only six games from the end of the regular season, which concluded with Sunday’s spirited 5-2 decision over the Syracuse Crunch in Allentown, did the team receive what it so badly needed.
Jump Into The Fire
Sanheim stepped unto the breach as a professional for the first time on April 8 at Wilkes-Barre, with no points and a shot on goal in a 4-0 win, but the Phantoms — for the first time since early in the season — did not look at a loss when taking the puck out of their own zone.
With Ghost and Brandon Manning, the Phantoms’ two fastest and most skilled rearguards, learning how to adapt to the rigors of the NHL, one primary source of Lehigh Valley’s problems in generating offense was the extra effort needed by backchecking forwards to be on their posts inside the defensive zone to receive and advance clearing passes from near the crease.
That, in turn, caused additional effort on the forwards’ part to win the battle for the puck and then get into proper position to receive a lead pass and advance through the neutral zone. Often times, the end result — if possession was kept through the neutral zone — was a fatigued puck-carrier stood up at the offensive blue line or a pass that was off the mark.
Andrew MacDonald, demoted from Philadelphia, was adept at times in being able to carry the puck through the d-zone and neutral zone, but the issues which caused his demotion reared their ugly heads too often to be overlooked. Davis Drewiske and Adam Comrie are not strictly puck-carrying defensemen (though the latter did record a late-season hat trick), while both Robert Hagg and Sam Morin continue to find their way in that respect.
But Sanheim appeared to step right in and feel comfortable. That burgeoning confidence was on display in spades during his last chances this season to impress his future bosses.
“The overall (way I played) was most important to me these last couple weeks. You saw in my game I was starting to feel more comfortable and was making better plays with the puck,” Sanheim admitted on Sunday night following the Phantoms’ finale. “I’m making smarter decisions, so I was lucky enough to get a good couple weeks in.”
Small sample size alert: in the four games which Sanheim dressed, the Phantoms went 3-1-0 and did not allow more than two goals in any contest, while averaging a neat 3.5 goals per game.
On Sunday evening in front of the last announced sellout crowd at PPL Center, Sanheim worked his ordinary magic for the appreciative faithful. That effort eventually gained him a First Star selection.
In the first period, he casually whipped his stick around to thwart a Syracuse wraparound chance which stood an excellent chance of going in — as goaltender Anthony Stolarz was a bit late to glide post-to-post and cut off a shooting lane. What you don’t see on the game highlight is this: Sanheim gained a secondary assist when he chipped the puck ahead out of the zone to Tyrell Goulbourne, who forged up the right-wing side before his shot attempt kicked out to Steve Swavely for the opening goal of the contest.
In the third stanza, Sanheim again stunted a prime Crunch scoring chance by standing in front of a vacant net as Stolarz once again failed to react quickly, and the dull thud of a puck caroming off his shin pads echoed all the way to the other end of the ice into the press box.
Emboldened, Sanheim later tried his hand at some Orr-esque moves, trying to deke three Syracuse checkers up the middle in the o-zone before being rudely interrupted. His coup-de-grace was a shot from the right circle at the 6:43 mark of the final period, which seemed destined for either of his two teammates causing traffic in front, but which took two billiard caroms before sliding past Crunch netminder Adam Wilcox to give the hosts a 4-1 edge.
“Yeah, I’ll take ‘em any way they happen. It wasn’t the prettiest one but it’s great to get the first one out of the way,” Sanheim said pretty sheepishly in the postgame before unleashing a flash of a devils’ grin.
Slow Your Roll
It’s important to remember, despite the hype and expectations that can easily act as an anchor to a player selected in the mid first round two years ago, Sanheim is, in many ways, just a kid.
Forget the fact that he’s 20 years old and carrying three years of heavy duty WHL experience with accolades trailing behind him like ticker tape. Remove the dozens of pounds of padding necessary to protect oneself from contact in the pros, and you’d find someone who, upon first glance, looks not unlike a stock boy at the local supermarket or a lifeguard at the swim club.
The youngster out of Elkhorn, Manitoba is a lanky 6-foot-4 and a hair under 200 pounds. He speaks softly while carrying a big stick. He doesn’t present the appearance of someone mature for his age physically or mentally, so there’s much room to grow these raw gifts.
After peeking his head into the locker room briefly, twice, to see if his interview time was near, he went straight for the rack full of Double Bubble bubble gum kept in a recessed area just to the left of the gigantic white board before facing the intrusion of recording devices.
Yet, as with all young athletic minds, the best kinds are those that absorb information quickly and process it well during physical exertion.
“The systems from Calgary to here are pretty well complete opposites, so I was learning all new systems, figuring out new ways to be successful. I thought I adjusted well though it took a little bit of time to get used to it as they games have gone on,” Sanheim added about an acute adjustment between leagues and teams.
“Even playing against bigger, stronger, faster guys, especially going into camp next year is going to set me up well.”