Even before Lehigh Valley Phantoms defenseman Travis Sanheim skated the initial shift of his first full season of pro hockey, there was no doubt over whether he possessed NHL-caliber skating prowess, raw size and ability to generate (whether by distributing or finishing) scoring chances by joining the rush.
If those were the only traits it took for a player to be ready for the NHL, the organization's 2014 first-round pick perhaps even could have fast-tracked to the Flyers in the same fashion as 2015 first-rounder Ivan Prorovov. Where Provorov had an edge on Sanheim in their respective levels of development was in terms of the maturity of their overall games; physical play, refinement of positional play without the puck, the pace and accuracy of decision making on defensive coverage reads and offensive zone pinches.
Provorov's maturity in these latter areas was (and remains) rare for a player his age.
It was not that Sanheim was a one-dimensional player. Indeed, from the time he was drafted, the Flyers have strongly believed that he had shown distinct potential to become a complete defenseman who is an asset in all three zones. A fast-riser whose stock took off in meteoric fashion in the second half of his draft-eligible season and his first season thereafter, Sanheim's potential was to become one of those rare 5-S (Speed, Skill, Size, Strength, and Sense) players that NHL teams long to find at any position but especially on the blueline.
As Sanheim's 6-foot-4 frame has filled out to north of the 200-pound mark - with room to perhaps add even a little bit more muscle - the size and strength part of the equation have started to round into place along with his skills. The remaining pieces of the puzzle before becoming NHL-ready: learning to use his size to his advantage in the physical game and continuing to refine his two-way play.
"He looks really good. Travis is a player that's capable of putting up offensive numbers, creating odd-man rushes and jumping up in the play," said GM Ron Hextall in taking in a Phantoms game earlier this season. "He's improved a lot. There's the adjustment phase and then there's the improvement phase."
At the Western Hockey League level for the Calgary Hitmen, Sanheim rapidly became his team's primary offensive weapon, along with fellow defenseman Jake Bean (now a Carolina Hurricanes prospect). Sanheim led all WHL defensemen in total points in 2014-15 and then in points-per-game (68 points in 52 games) the next year. It was not an uncommon sight in Hitmen games to see Sanheim leading the rush up the ice. If caught up ice, he could often use his speed to recover.
Much of this was by necessity. The Hitmen's forward lineup was no longer as deep as it had been when Sanheim first joined the team, which necessitated the team to rely on the offensively gifted defenseman to generate attack from the back end. Sanheim succeeded more often than not, as his WHL production and roster spot on Team Canada's 2015-16 World Junior Championship roster (where he was deployed by head coach Dave Lowry largely as a power play specialist) attested.
At the pro level, however, many adjustments are necessary on both sides of the puck. The pace of play is faster, so there's less chance to recover from mistakes. Moves that work on junior level defenders are often quickly snuffed out by the pros. There's less open ice to make plays. Defensively, the forecheckers come in faster and take better routes to pressure defenders. Having sound positioning, a "heavy" but quick defensive stick and a physical element are highly desirable.
These traits take time to develop, and it is often harder to refine these traits at the NHL level - where winning in the sole focus, and most development comes via practice and learning from experience - than it is in the American Hockey League. While winning is, of course, also quite important for NHL's farm teams, there is a concurrent goal of developing young players to get them ready to play at the top level.
Even before the Phantoms played a single game in 2016-17, the Flyers sent a clear message that Sanheim's overall development, not his offensive stats, were the primary objective for his first year. The team signed veteran AHL star offensive defenseman T.J. Brennan and another proven offensive-minded AHL veteran blueliner in Will O'Neill. That meant fewer point-producing opportunities for Sanheim on the power play but, more importantly also presented a chance for Sanheim to focus on the areas that he needed to refine to move closer to being ready to challenge for an NHL spot.
The addition of Kerry Huffman as a full-time assistant coach on the Phantoms staff - specifically to work daily with Sanheim, 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin, 2013 second-rounder Robert Hägg and the rest of the blueliners - as well as the regular visits of Flyers defenseman development coach Kjell Samuelsson have paid dividends.
"They've both been a big help for sure," Sanheim said in January. "They've both played in the NHL and have a lot of knowledge to share. I like working with them."
Throughout the season, Sanheim has focused largely on refining the overall process of his game. All along, his coaches told him that if he continued to play the game the right way, the points would start coming, too.
They have. From an offensive standpoint, after not scoring a goal until early December, Sanheim has pulled off an impressive rookie feat of scoring double-digit goals (10 to date) and compiling 29 points through his first 63 games. This is especially impressive on a team that has perennial AHL All-Star Brennan (who led the team with 51 points through 63 games) and O'Neill (31 points in 57 games) to do the offensive heavy-lifting from the back end.
More important, though: Sanheim's quest to become a well-rounded pro defenseman has made large-scale progress over the course of the season. Apart from being a plus-seven at even strength, the consistency of Sanheim's play without the puck has significantly improved across the board. He is also deadly in the transitional game, triggering counterattacks with good first passes or becoming a dangerous trailer for opposing defenders to leave uncovered.
An ongoing work in progress and another area that has seen improvement is Sanheim's refinement from a primarily finesse/containment oriented defender to one with some bite in his physical game.
"Overall, I would say Travis has been coming along in every area. There's room for every young player to get better and Travis is aware of that. He is diligent and he is coachable," Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said in January.
As the American Hockey League regular season heads down the home stretch and into the Calder Cup playoffs, the continued development of players such as Sanheim, Morin and Hägg (currently out with a lower-body injury) will be important cogs in the Phantoms' quest for a deep run in the postseason. From a long-term perspective, it also bodes well for their future ambitions to play in the NHL for the Flyers.