Hitmen’s Sanheim using opportunities to fast-track his game

By Glen Erickson

Travis Sanheim - Calgary Hitmen

Photo: Calgary Hitmen defenseman and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Travis Sanheim was the top offensive defender in the WHL in 2014-15, posting 65 points in 67 games (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

It’s an issue that has been considered in past years among aspiring hockey players and their families, and also an issue that will be considered many times over in the future.

That is, should a player spend his 16-year-old season in a major junior league, or stick around home and play another season in midget hockey? What is best for the player’s development?

For the best of the best, it seems a simple proposition. At 16 years of age, the top players will benefit immediately from a season of junior hockey because there will be no shortage of ice time. Elite players in their respective age groups are seldom seen riding the pine.

But what about players who might not be considered the type of talent that is capable of moving the needle? Will dressing for 72 junior games make sense when often times the player sees little or no ice time? Discussions about development in these cases would certainly appear to have some merit.

Enter Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen, who was faced with a major decision prior to the 2012-13 WHL season

Had Sanheim stayed put in Calgary with the Hitmen to play occasionally among a veteran group of experienced defensemen, the likelihood of significant ice time during his rookie year was unlikely. Despite Sanheim’s apparent set of skills, a pecking order is part of the circle of life in junior hockey that certainly does exist.

“I think it was an interesting decision at that time,” Sanheim said, when interviewed by Hockey’s Future during the Hitmen’s stop in Kelowna for a late-season tilt against the Rockets. “Maybe with goalies and defensemen, moreso than forwards, I think it’s about playing quality minutes, important minutes.

“Do you take a player and force him play to a higher level, but with reduced minutes?”

In Sanheim’s case, he opted to stay home in Elkhorn, MB, where he completed a second season with the Yellowhead Chiefs of the Manitoba Midget Hockey League.

“I think it was about the extra year of gaining confidence and playing in all situations,” Sanheim said when asked how he felt he benefited by that second year of midget hockey. “When you come into the WHL at 16, you’re getting limited ice time and are maybe not playing in the roles you’d like to.

“Calgary had such a good team and a real good d-corps. So I waited. When I did come in here, it still did take awhile to get my feet under me, but I found that in the second half of my rookie season, I turned out to have a pretty good year.”

The real opportunity arose for Sanheim when defenseman Jaynen Rissling (NSH) went down with a serious injury just prior to mid-season.

“That freed up some ice time for me,” Sanheim said. “And not only that, I got some power play minutes too, and I was able to take advantage of that. When Jaynen came back, I was still given some power play time, so I am glad I was able to take advantage of the extra ice time when it became available.”

Many coaches have stated that when key players are missing from the lineup, someone else has an opportunity to step up. Indeed, if playing his way onto the Hitmen’s power play unit means anything, Sanheim certainly did okay. After all, he moved up from 167th in NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term ranking to 53rd in the final ranking.

Then, if earning an opportunity to play on Team Canada’s bronze medal-winning squad at the 2014 U18 World Championship is of any substance – where he collected six points in seven games – again it would seem that Sanheim did okay.

And just to further the case that Sanheim understands the concept of answering the call when opportunity knocks, his performance led to his name being called in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, PA.

“It was the best day of my life,” Sanheim said of the NHL Draft. “Having my (twin) brother there, and to be selected by Philadelphia, the team that was hosting the event, I mean the fan support was just incredible.”

Sanheim was selected 17th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, the third of three WHL rearguards chosen in the first round behind Haydn Fleury (CAR) and Julius Honka (DAL). He had played much of his first season in the WHL alongside Ben Thomas, who was also drafted in Philadelphia in the fourth round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sanheim scored five times and added 24 assists in 67 games as a rookie, while compiling a +25 rating. A couple of months after the draft, on September 24th, Sanheim inked an entry-level contract.

This season, Sanheim progressed in a big way, responding well to higher expectations in Calgary. He led all WHL defensemen in scoring with 15 goals and 50 assists in 67 games while compiling a +27 rating. The Hitmen battled through the final eight weeks of the season for the Central Division crown and the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Head coach Mark French, in his first season behind the Hitmen bench, likes what he sees in Sanheim.

“Travis is starting to fill out into his size now,” French said about the 6’3, 185-pounder. “Some physical maturity, that’s important at the next level. He plays with confidence, and needs to, so I think that year before junior was really important for him.”

French feels Sanheim has delivered on the promise and increased expectations that come along with signing an NHL contract.

“It’s interesting when you look at it, the number of players we have drafted,” French said. “I think it’s a little different playing when there is a different set of expectations on your shoulders.

“Last year for a number of our guys, maybe they were kind of under the radar, aspiring to certain things and maybe playing under limited pressure. Then they get drafted and that changes. There is a greater expectation of not only what they might do in the future, but even this year in terms of how they should be able to step up and perform.”

For Sanheim, part of his performance and development this season relates to successfully upping his offensive contributions. French likes what he sees, but admits that his entire group on the blueline has been able to add to the scoring depth in Calgary.

“Travis provides production from the backend,” French said. “That’s probably expected a bit when you have him there with a Ben Thomas, or a Jake Bean, and even Michael Zipp.”

In fact, 16-year-old Bean has taken the WHL by storm among rookies this season, rising to the fore in much the same way Sanheim did a year ago. Bean was inserted into the lineup beside Sanheim after Thomas went down with an injury. In 51 games, Bean collected five goals and 34 assists to set a new team record for points by a 16-year-old defenseman. Unfortunately, Bean suffered what appeared to be a shoulder injury in Kelowna and has not played since late February. He may return during the post-season.

“I feel pretty lucky to play with Travis,” Bean told Hockey’s Future. “I think we have pretty similar games and he’s a real smart player out there. Just to play with him and learn from him, it’s been important for me to just be a sponge. He’s been through the experiences that I haven’t had yet, so if I can learn as much from him as I can, that can help to set up my future.”

Like Bean, when Sanheim was 16, he was also consumed by his hockey future, even though he opted to stay back in midget hockey for a second year, which also enabled him to play alongside his brother Taylor, a forward who is also now in Calgary with the Hitmen. But back in the day for Travis, he admits the WHL had always been in his crosshairs.

“A couple of seasons ago, a MJHL team (Winkler Flyers) moved in about 15 minutes from Elkhorn,” Sanheim said. “But Brandon is only about an hour away. We were in there quite a bit watching the Wheat Kings, guys like Colby Robak and Brayden Schenn.”

And despite a junior career in Calgary and a future that looks to include the city of Philadelphia, Sanheim has always enjoyed his family and that small-town feel.

“Growing up in a small community was great and I really enjoyed the support in a smaller community,” he said. “And this year, having Taylor playing here in Calgary after not being able to play with him last year, well, that was a first. It was different, but it probably did benefit us in some ways, too.”

The Sanheim twins will celebrate their 19th birthdays together on March 29th, during a first round playoff series against the Kootenay Ice.

“Just to have him back, we play better together,” Travis said of playing with his brother. “It’s pretty cool for us and for our family, too.”

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51