Rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim had an interesting rookie season. Limited to only 49 regular season games played, Sanheim showed flashes of what he can become. Unfortunately for Sanheim, there was quite a bit of ugly play prior to being demoted to the AHL.
The primary issues in his game are in the defensive zone. Specifically: play reading/recognition, gap control, puck watching, assignment switches, net front defence, and a relative lack of active stick work. These issues did not surface during his first stint with the Flyers consistently until the month of December. As a result, coach Dave Hakstol assigned Sanheim to the press box for 10 of 11 games from December 29th through January 23rd.
Travis Sanheim: Renewed Confidence In His Game
Sanheim’s 18 games in the AHL inspired some renewed confidence in his game. Brad Keffer of Broad Street Hockey tracks a variety of 5v5 stats for the Phantoms players. His site phancystats.com shows how well Sanheim fared in his AHL stint. For instance, Sanheim lead the entire team in average Game Score, Shot Attempt Differential Relative to team (+8.96), and his goal differential was a +11 (18 Goals For, 7 Goals Against). The goal-based results were something that really did not go Sanheim’s way in his first NHL stretch. By all accounts, Sanheim’s game took off in the AHL.
Exit & Entry Metrics
Sanheim’s zone exits were when he skates the puck out with his legs. In comparison to his NHL peers, those numbers were slightly above average. Moving forward, you’d like to see more completed outlet passes that result in pushing the play up ice. Unlike his paltry exit pass metrics, Sanheim’s entry passes were more effective and frequent. Research shows that a controlled entry (via possession or a pass) results in twice as many shots as an uncontrolled entry. Already showing this ability as a rookie bodes well for the future.
Sanheim’s Break-up% was the second best on the defence behind Shayne Gostisbehere. This hints at a concerted effort on Sanheim’s part to thwart forays from rushers trying to gain entry. The strange results from Dump-in%, Carry-In%, and Entry Pass% paint an entirely different picture. Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic wrote an article recently that can describe why there is such a discrepancy with these metrics. In December and January, Sanheim allowed controlled entries against at a whopping 78.57%. Undoubtedly, that stretch of games cratered his entry defence stats for the season as a whole. Poor neutral zone defence stats are indicative of a lack of trust by a defenseman in his ability to keep and maintain tight gaps. Rushers had free reign often when attempting to gain the zone with possession in December and January when targeting Sanheim.
Goals Above Replacement (Overall Player Contributions)
Chace McCallum, Emmanuel Perry, and the EvolvingWild twins have models measuring player contributions. Each is utilized in the graph above and are averaged to create a blended GAR. Predictably, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are head and shoulders above the rest of the Flyers defenseman here. Radko Gudas failed the eye-test last season but he still performed well via advanced stats. Thus, his higher than anticipated GAR performance. Sanheim’s on-ice contributions were the fourth best among Flyers defenseman. It will not surprise when his contributions are only bested by Gostisbehere and Provorov next season. Given that his development processes smoothly of course.
Player Traits & Profile
Ryan Stimson’s work on tracking and quantifying pre-shot movement is an invaluable source of information for the hockey community at large. Sanheim’s, and many more players data can be found using this viz. Another aspect of Stimson’s work is assessing passing data and using it to predict future scoring. Utilizing this template, let’s see how well Travis Sanheim stacks up to his peers.
Expected Primary Points Per 60 (xPrP60) measures and predicts future goal scoring by examining whether or not shots and shot assists are happening in the danger areas of the ice (the slot). Sanheim grades out very highly here and in danger zone shot assists per 60. Primary shot contributions consists of primary shot assists and individual shots. Next up is individual danger zone shots coming from passes behind the net or across the slot. Sanheim shines here. His performance in this metric suggests puck luck was not on his side in his rookie year. The rookie yips (rushing passes and shots) played a part here.
The EvolvingWild twins formulated a statistic called Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus. Based on the previous work of Brian MacDonald, this stat measures plus-minus independent of both teammate and opponent effects. The components are goals for, expected goals for, corsi for, expected goals against, and corsi against. None of the previous statistics mentioned highlight Sanheim’s rookie season quite as accurately. For starters, even after his AHL stint, his goals for numbers were still below par. His individual impact on expected goals for was a little above average and his corsi for numbers were adequate. Where Sanheim’s play stood out the most is in his expected goal and shot suppression stats. Puck possession is akin to shot suppression and Sanheim’s performance here adheres to that ideology. The individual impact on suppression will manifest itself in future seasons when taking into account goal differential.
Sanheim’s positive progression in the NHL is incumbent upon him being a more reliable defenseman in his own zone. More attention to detail, consistently displaying an active stick, imposing his will on opponents when engaged in a battle in front of his net, dependable coverage, more patience when possessing the puck while looking for outlets, and making quick reads through faster play recognition are things to look out for next season and beyond. When those things are improved upon, Travis Sanheim will be a bonafide top-four NHL defenseman. The exit, entry, and shot generation/suppression skills are already there. They’re a solid foundation to build upon. In the meantime, incremental improvement on his defensive deficiencies would be ideal.
As far as his offence goes, the points will come with more seasoning and experience. The adjustment in speed and skill from the AHL to the NHL was something that was readily apparent in the offensive zone. Shots and passes were rushed due to not having a true grasp on how much time he had (or didn’t have) when he had the puck in the offensive zone. With a year under his belt, that hesitancy will be a thing of the past.
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