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Meltzer's Line Play: 2nd D-Pair

Who could be paired together as the third and fourth d-men this season

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

It is by no means set in stone that, once restricted free agent Ivan Provorov is re-signed, he'll be teamed with new addition Matt Niskanen on the Flyers top defense pair. It is also possible that Provorov could start out with newcomer Justin Braun and Travis Sanheim could start out with Niskanen.

Both veteran additions are defensively responsible players who could make a good second-pairing partner for Sanheim. However, the choice here is to go with Provorov/Niskanen up top and place Braun with Sanheim on the second pair. Eventually, a youngster such as Philippe Myers might be ready to move up and form a more puck-dynamic tandem but, that probably won't happen right off the bat.

Niskanen is a better puck-mover than Braun, but the latter's poise, while Sanheim's two-way game at the NHL level took significant strides last season, he is still well-served seeing a healthy dose of attacking opportunities to take advantage of his burgeoning offensive skills. Braun can help balance the pair.

The apparent plan for Sanheim in his third NHL season is to look for about 20 minutes per game out of him. He and Braun could play together regularly at 5-on-5 with Sanheim seeing some secondary power play unit duties. Braun is a lock to be a regular penalty killer. Sanheim will probably not be a primary PK rotation player but will see a little bit of such duty, such as when one of the main PK defensemen is serving a penalty of his own. 

Now let's look a bit more at the projected second pair on an individual basis:

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 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. He is capable of pushing his production up into the 40-plus point range annually and being an annual double-digit goal scorer.

This is will partially be dependent on power play time. New assistant coach Michel Therrien, who will manage the power play, said that he typically prefers to use four forwards and one defenseman on the man advantage. Assuming Gostisbehere remains entrenched on the first power play unit, Sanheim will compete with Provorov and possibly Niskanen (who was a power play regular at previous career junctures) for time on the second unit.

Last season, the biggest improvements in Sanheim's game were in terms of his gaps, reads without the puck and staying poised under forechecking pressure. He's still not infallible, but trended the right way as a second-year NHLer.

Sanheim's expanded role in the middle of last season 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. As the Flyers surged and climbed back to the precipice of the playoff race -- after burying themselves to the point where there was very little margin for error the rest of the way -- Sanheim began to thrive. For a period of roughly six weeks, Sanheim performed at an impact defenseman level. Mid-January to the end of February was especially strong with five of his nine goals and 15 of his 35 points coming in those two months. For the month of February, he posted 10 points in 13 games.

Along with many of his teammates, Sanheim hit an ill-timed mini-slump in his game without the puck at a key juncture of the stretch drive. It came at a time when the Flyers desperately needed both Sanheim and Provorov to have their A games going because the club faced a succession of very tough opponents. After publicly calling himself out and saying he needed to play to his full capabilities, Sanheim bounced back strong. His stellar all-around performance in 25:09 of ice time in a home win against Toronto on March 27 may have been the most dominating single-game effort of Sanheim's NHL career to date. 

Basically, what Sanheim needs to hit the next level in his game is just a tad more consistency; less of a noticeable gap between his best nights and so-so ones. He's already gotten better at making sure a rough shift doesn't snowball but he still only has 131 games of NHL experience. 

The presence of a stable veteran partner who has been through the wars many times, and has typically played on contending teams -- a description that fits both Braun and Niskanen -- could pay not only immediate dividends for Sanheim but also in future years as he begins to reach his prime and will likely have new partners with whom to play.
For quite a few years, Braun was a steady, minutes-eating defenseman for the Sharks, often paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. This past year, Braun played both with Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. For his career to date, he has dressed in 607 regular season games and 84 playoff games. 

The 2018-19 season was not among Braun's strongest campaigns, by his own admission. Nevertheless, he was relied upon heavily to play an unglamourous role for a team that reached the Western Conference Final. 

Braun was the designated right defense absorber of defensive zone shift starts. Fellow right-handed defensemen Erik Karlsson (61.2 percent offensive zone starts) and Brent Burns (65.3 percent offensive zone starts) were thus able to focus on using their offensive gifts to make things happen on the attack when they got out on the ice.  

The highest offensive output of Braun's NHL career came in 2017-18, when he chipped in five goals and 28 assists (both career highs) while dressing in 81 regular season games. He topped 20 points in two other campaigns. A graduate of UMass-Amhert who turned pro in the spring of 2010, Braun spent his entire pro career in the Sharks organization prior to being traded to the Flyers this offseason.

Apart from reaching the Western Conference Final with the Sharks in 2019, Braun was a mainstay on the 2015-16 squad that reached the Stanley Cup Final. He has averaged north of 20 minutes of ice time per game in each of the last six seasons, and blocked 120 to 161 shots in every season during that time span.

Braun has been a regular penalty killer and TOI workhorse in each of his last six seasons. Ideally, the right-handed blueliner needs to be paired with a puck-moving partner on the left to balance the pairing -- which is were Sanheim can help him out -- but Braun has always been reliable without the puck.

During his introductory conference call, Braun said that, before his trade to Philadelphia, he viewed the Flyers from afar as a team with good pieces being assembled that would eventually gel. Now it's his job both to be a piece of the puzzle himself as well as what coaches call a "glue guy", who helps other pieces better hold together.

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