On June 24, the Flyers re-signed defenseman Travis Sanheim to a two-year contract extension, carrying a $3.25 million average annual value. The deal preempted Sanheim's restricted free agent status (RFA) this summer.
"I'm obviously really excited. It's a big step in my career. I'm looking forward to another two years with the Flyers. I'm really excited with the way the team's moving forward and the moves we've made this summer," Sanheim said on the day the deal was announced.
Sanheim took a big step forward in his development in 2018-19. He saw more ice time (an average 23.7 shifts and 17:20 of ice time, up from 15.1 shifts and 11:11 TOI as a rookie), spent a significant stretch on the top pairing with Ivan Provorov in the second half of the season, took strides in his two-way game at the NHL level, and saw his production increase to nine goals and 35 points.
The 2018-19 season was a disappointing, excessively streaky campaign for a team that entered the season with expectations of improving upon its 98-point season of the previous year. Sanheim's play was one of the team's bright spots.
"This year was a crazy one with roller-coaster we went through with ups and downs. It was hard at times, but you just have to stick with it. For me it was continuing to develop my game. When the opportunities were there, and I tried to take advantage of it. I was given more opportunities and responsibilities and I thought I did a good job of grabbing that and rolling with it," Sanheim said on April 7.
Sanheim's expanded role came at the suggestion of former assistant coach Rick Wilson. Interim head coach Scott Gordon, who had previously coached Sanheim in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, agreed with Wilson that it was time to see what the young player could do with more minutes.
"I'd like to say my play itself was good enough to earn those minutes and opportunities, but it's hard to say. ...As a young guy, coaches having confidence to throw you back out there makes it easy to shake off mistake. Having that trust level and learning from those mistakes and that was a key for me this year. My mistakes were a lot less. They weren't as critical as ones I did in my first season," Sanheim said.
Come training camp, Sanheim and his teammates will have to acclimate themselves to a new coaching staff, including head coach Alain Vigneault, defense/ penalty kill coach Mike Yeo and forwards/power play coach Michel Therrien. Sanheim will likely be paired, at least to start, with one of the two veteran defensemen who were brought in this summer; either Justin Braun or Matt Niskanen.
In terms of power play time, Therrien recently said that he typically prefers to use four forwards and one defenseman on the power play. Assuming Shayne Gostisbehere remains entrenched on the first power play unit, Sanheim will compete with Provorov and possibly Niskanen for time on the second unit.
Even before the coaching changes were announced, Sanheim said he sees room for increased consistency in his own game as well as for the team. Among the areas where his game took strides this past season was in managing gaps, making defensive reads and handling forechecking pressure but there is still room for a little higher degree of consistency.
"It was a hard season. I learned a lot about the team and the changed we went through. It made me a better player. And the experiences going forward that I've already dealt with, it was nice to take that step forward but still a lot of work to do," Sanheim said.
As with any bridge contract, the Sanheim deal carries benefits and risks for both sides.
For the Flyers, the obvious benefit is that going with a two-year deal significantly reduces Sanheim's cap hit in the short term. The risk is that, if Sanheim continues to progress at his rate of the last two seasons, his next deal could end up being more expensive than the cost of signing a long-term deal now. Upon expiration of the new deal in 2021, Sanheim will be an arbitration-eligible RFA.
For Sanheim, the benefit of the deal is that he gets a big immediate bump from his expiring entry-level contract, and sets himself up for a big bump from the new deal come 2021-22. The risk of a relatively short-term contract is the lack of security in case of long-term injury or stagnation of his play. Essentially, Sanheim is betting on himself that he will play to a level that pushes the value of his next contract higher than would signing a long-term deal now.
"We are very pleased with the progress Travis has made in his young career. He is a skilled, two-way defenseman with excellent size and mobility. He is a big part of our present and our future," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.