Travis Sanheim welcomes competition, 'coming to make the Flyers'

Travis Sanheim welcomes competition, 'coming to make the Flyers'

VOORHEES, N.J. — At development camp, Travis Sanheim was almost too developed.

He would skate through drills so naturally and fluidly, he could have been an instructor.

Unintentionally, he was in a way.

"It's definitely a teaching camp," Sanheim said last week. "Even the development coaches have talked to me, making sure I slow stuff down and show the younger guys how to do it properly, not necessarily doing everything at full speed."

Sanheim understood the importance of leading by example at his fourth development camp, but there was no reason to feel sorry for appearing ahead of the curve.

That's where Sanheim is.

Which made for a slight paradox over the six-day course. Undoubtedly, the 21-year-old defenseman wanted to be among the organization's prospects, sharpening and sculpting his game just like the rest.

But there's no question Sanheim's yearning for a much different camp — September with the big boys, because he's now one of them.

"I feel like I'm ready, I'm going to compete for a spot," Sanheim said. "Until somebody tells me differently, that's my goal. I'm coming to make the Flyers."

Under general manager Ron Hextall's philosophy of earn what you get, Sanheim will have his chance. But is there room? The Flyers are at a numbers crunch on the blue line. There is expected to be two spots open, presumably for Robert Hagg and Sam Morin, both of whom acquitted themselves well during their April NHL debuts.

Sanheim isn't conceding anything, though.

"It's going to come down to camp," he said.

"This year, obviously there's going to be some spots available, and we're going to be fighting for the job."

It's hard to deny his readiness. The 2014 first-round pick has done what has been necessary through his development path. He's added noticeable strength, going from around 172 pounds when drafted to a sturdy 200 currently.

"I watched Travis Sanheim — you see him, his first development camp he looked like a young boy," Hextall said. "And you look at him now, and he almost looks like a man. He's just more upright, you can tell his body is more linked up, he's got a stronger core, he's more upright when he skates."

The 6-foot-4 Sanheim weighed the same at 2016 development camp, a possible sign he's where he needs to be physically. Hextall believes weight must still be gained and Sanheim doesn't disagree, but did point out how he fared just fine last season in his first full year with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

"Obviously, I'm going to want to continue to keep gaining strength and add that to my game, but I played pro this year and it didn't faze me at all," he said. "The strength, I think I was right there with everyone else, was able to compete and battle in 1-on-1s against pro players."

With the Phantoms, his defensive principles and two-way awareness took positive strides over time. Offense has always been Sanheim's game. In his final two junior seasons, he totaled 133 points in 119 regular-season games. That was against kids in the WHL.

In 2016-17, he saw the change against men in the AHL. He managed to collect 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) in 76 games for a plus-7 rating and knows he can do more, but the AHL helped him focus on picking his spots.

"I went over numerous video sessions with the coaches, watching clips of stuff that if I was to look at it now, it would just look silly," Sanheim said with a laugh. "I'm standing on top of the goalie in the crease, there's just no need for that as a defenseman and especially at the pro level.

"I wasn't able to do the same things that I was able to do in junior. I had to learn some valuable lessons in the first few months, but I think towards the end of the season, you could see that I had gained my confidence again and was starting to play the game that I wanted to play.

"I know to play at this next level, I'm going to have to be just as good in my D-zone as I am in the offensive zone, so for me, if I'm not contributing offensively, I just want to make sure I'm bringing the full two-way game."

Hextall noticed Sanheim's adjustment period.

"He did a really good job last year from start to finish — got a lot better," he said. "The adjustment on the first month, month and a half, where he was going too much up ice, a little bit irresponsible and all of a sudden, a month, month and a half in, figured that part out. That was a huge step for him. He got better, he got better throughout the year and he needs to continue on that."

As pleased as Hextall has been with the development, it sounds like Sanheim's jump to the NHL will ultimately come down to the aforementioned size and opportunity.

"You go from an American League level to trying to make the NHL team, there's a speed, a strength thing that wounds up another two notches," Hextall said. "He just has to continue to do what he's doing and get better every day.

"Your reaction time to closing on a guy, whether to close or not close, everything gets ramped up. It's the whole mind, the hockey sense, the strength, the being in the proper position, because if you're caught out of position at the NHL level and it's an elite player, you're in big trouble. In the American League, you can get away with it.

"There's still some fine-tuning that he needs to do and all those young defensemen need to do, and we'll see where we're at in September."

Sanheim knows where he wants to be. And he's not just saying it — he believes it.

"I'm going to obviously do what they tell me," he said, "but I'm coming to camp to make the team."

Finally with his age group, German Rubtsov now eyeing bigger things

Finally with his age group, German Rubtsov now eyeing bigger things

VOORHEES, N.J. — Ask any prospect at Flyers development camp what their goals come September’s NHL training camp are and it’s hard to find an offbeat answer.

“It’s a trick question, right?” German Rubtsov said last Friday through an interpreter, Flyers skating coach Slava Kouznetsov. “Everybody wants to play in the NHL.”

When training camp breaks in October, the Flyers have three options for Rubtsov:

The 2016 first-round pick can play in the NHL.

He can return to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens of the QMJHL.

Or he can play in the AHL since the Flyers drafted him out of Russia.

“Playing in Chicoutimi, I felt comfortable,” he said. “Every game was a point or point plus, thanks to my partners as well. Before that, I played KHL. I think I’m ready to try the league.”

Which league?

The league,” Rubtsov said. “Big.”

The 19-year-old Rubtsov likely won't be donning the orange and black in the fall. That should not come to a surprise to anyone.

With the drafting Nolan Patrick last month and the arrival of Oskar Lindblom from Sweden, the forward competition is already as competitive as it’s been in a while.

Even with the 51 combined games Rubtsov played in 2016-17 between the KHL, MHL, QMJHL and 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships, more minor league seasoning will be needed.

Whether that will be in Chicoutimi or Lehigh Valley remains unanswered for now.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. “To me, it’s not fair to make a decision predetermined right now, ‘OK, he’s going here, he’s going there.’

“We’ll leave that door open in terms of NHL. I’d probably say it’s a long shot. But American League or junior, we’ll see as we go along here where the best place for him to develop is.”

Rubtsov attended his first development camp last weekend. He was unable to attend last summer’s camp because of his contract obligations with the KHL’s HC Vityaz.

There was some controversy surrounding Rubtsov and the Russian under-18 team prospects going into the 2016 NHL draft. Team Russia was banned from the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships because of a meldonium doping scandal.

After being drafted, Rubtsov insisted that he and his teammates unknowingly took a banned substance. Hextall further investigated the situation and still felt comfortable selecting the center, who also had two years left on his contract with Vityaz.

The original plan was for Rubtsov to stay in the KHL until his contract expired before coming to North America, but he struggled in the KHL and was too advanced for the MHL.

Eventually, Rubtsov’s agent, Mark Gandler, negotiated a release from his contract with Vityaz on Jan. 9, and Rubtsov joined the Saguenéens, who owned his CHL rights.

Rubtsov didn’t debut with Chicoutimi until Jan. 19 because of a broken nose.

“The moving to the United States was the first thing,” Rubtsov said. “In Chicoutimi, the first couple of games were not comfortable. Then everything came to normal.

“I feel comfortable. Being in the United States before and playing in Canada helped, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable [now] and everything is pretty much good.”

The difference between the Rubtsov in the KHL and the Rubtsov in the QMJHL was noticable. He struggled to get minutes in the KHL, averaging 6:33 in 15 games and failed to register a point. He had just five shots and won 31.8 percent of his faceoffs.

He was a point-per-game player in the MHL, a Russian junior league, recording 15 points in 15 games with the Russkie Vityazi Chekhov. That was the player he resembled more in the Q.
 
Rubtsov made an immediate impact with the Saguenéens. He picked up two assists and fired six shots on goal in his first game, and he picked up nine points in his first six games.
 
“When you see a kid playing with his peers, it’s a lot different than playing in the KHL,” Hextall said. “You saw it a little bit with Ruby. Ruby goes from KHL and all of a sudden, he goes to Chicoutimi with his own age group and you’re like, ‘Woah.’
 
“We certainly weren’t surprised by that.”
 
The Chekhov, Russia, native missed Chicoutimi’s final six games of the regular season and then its postseason because of a fractured hand. He finished his brief QMJHL stint with racking up 22 points in 16 games — nine goals, five power-play markers, 13 assists with six multi-point games and was held scoreless just three times.
 
Last season, Rubtsov dealt with a broken nose and a fractured hand at the end of the campaign. He said he dealt with injuries in the KHL as well and played through them.
 
“I played until I wasn’t able to hold the stick,” Rubtsov said. “When the hand completely gave up that’s when I came [to Philadelphia for surgery].”
 
“That's kind of what you want," Hextall said. "You want guys who will push themselves and do what they can to try to be the best they can and try to help the team win. It certainly comes into the mix in terms of the character of a player and person.”
 
When the Flyers drafted Rubtsov last summer, their forward prospect group was not as deep as it is now. Hextall added seven forwards in 2016, including five of his first six picks. Last month, he added seven more, including three in the top 35.
 
So the question with Rubtsov, does he still project as a center with the Flyers? He played both center and wing last season in Chicoutimi. The versatility at his age is attractive.
 
“There are certain guys in the middle you want to move out of the middle because when they get to the NHL level, maybe their sense isn’t quite high enough or their size or there’s a blemish,” Hextall said. “He doesn’t have that blemish. He’s a smart player, he skates well.
 
“He’s going to be big and strong enough in a couple years. He’s going to be one of those guys truly who’s going to be really good in the middle and we may want to keep him there.”

Felix Sandstrom, Carter Hart, Flyers' tandem of the future? Count on it

Felix Sandstrom, Carter Hart, Flyers' tandem of the future? Count on it

VOORHEES, N.J. — When Flyers general manager Ron Hextall played, the former goaltender always viewed his partner and himself as a part of a tandem. Or so he says 18 years later.

By studying Hextall’s goaltending decisions during his time in his current post, his philosophy has become indisputable: draft a ton of goalies and tandems are imperative.

Hextall has drafted five goalies in the four drafts he’s been in charge, signed a college free agent (Alex Lyon) and the Flyers currently have nine netminders in their organization.

The effectiveness of platoons played a factor in the Flyers’ biggest free-agent move of the summer and immediate future in net. Brian Elliott welcomes tandems. Steve Mason didn’t.

Elliott will partner with Michal Neuvirth for the next two seasons in Philadelphia, but then what? We all expect one of the Flyers’ highly-touted prospects to be here in three years.

Whether that’s either Carter Hart or Felix Sandstrom, two goalies drafted by Hextall with bright futures, or either Lyon or Anthony Stolarz will be determined in the next two years.

Hart and Sandstrom are the two prospects everyone expects to compete for the No. 1 job when they’re seasoned enough to be in the NHL, but the question turns to their role.

Does Hextall envision either Hart or Sandstrom taking a stranglehold of the No. 1 job, while the other either serves as the backup or gets squeezed out of the equation?

You can bet on that being the case.

“The goalie dictates that,” Hextall said last Friday during development camp at Flyers Skate Zone. “You still need two goalies. I never want to have a backup that you say, ‘OK, he’s a 10- or 15-game guy.’ What if your guy gets hurt, where do you go? It’s always a tandem.

“You need someone capable of playing 30 games. Fifty-thirty, that’s a tandem. Fifty-five-twenty-five, that’s a tandem. The goaltender will dictate the games to some degree.”
 
On Day 1 of development camp last Friday, Hart and Sandstrom were paired together during the first goalie session at 8 a.m. and the second in the afternoon.
 
If the vision going forward includes them splitting time between the pipes, it doesn’t hurt that the goalies were positioned two stalls from each other at camp.
 
It also doesn’t hurt that they were at development camp last summer and they’ll likely be together again next summer. Building a rapport now should pay off in the long run.
 
“I was here last year with [Sandstrom],” Hart said, “so I got to know him pretty well. We were on the same volleyball team for the Trial on the Isle. We didn’t have great partners.

“I don’t know who they were. I don’t want to say any names. I think we finished last.”

Hart, who turns 19 next month, received a taste of pro life at the end of last season, when he joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms largely as a spectator in the AHL playoffs, though he did back up once.
 
The 2016 second-round pick will spend the 2017-18 season in the WHL with Everett before making the jump full-time professionally in 2018-19 when he’s 20 (see story).
 
As for Sandstrom, the 20-year-old had the option to jump overseas this season to play at Lehigh Valley with his contract with Brynäs IF expiring after last season.
 
Instead, the Swede decided to re-up for one more year with Brynäs, while his teammate, winger Oskar Lindblom, opted to come to North America full-time. Lindblom is expected to make the Flyers’ roster in training camp, but beginning the year in the AHL is an option too.

“I’m in a good position at home in Sweden,” Sandstrom said. “I get to play a lot. Really like my goalie coach there, too. I’m in a good position at home. No reason to rush. I think I need one more year to develop more and be even more ready to come over here.”

Leaving Sweden didn’t really compute much for Sandstrom, a 2015 third-round pick who in 2016-17 posted respectable numbers for Brynäs in his second full season in the SHL.

There is a numbers game in Lehigh Valley with Lyon and Stolarz, both restricted free agents. There wasn’t much playing time available with the Phantoms.

In 46 regular-season games last season, Sandstrom compiled a 14-7 record, 2.25 goals-against average and .908 save percentage with two shutouts. During the postseason, he had a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage in 13 games as Brynäs lost in the finals.

Sandstrom reiterated his desire to play in the NHL and “be a reason why the Flyers win games” at development camp. With the logistics, it just didn’t make sense this year.

When he does come over — as it is with all European players — the rink will be his biggest adjustment. The smaller rink creates for different angles for goalies. It takes time to adjust.

“It’s a different type of game with the rinks,” Sandstrom said. “More shots, more straight to the net. I like that. I think I can handle that. It’s pretty good. I’m a pretty good skater, too.

“It’s more often that they shoot from places [here], where, in Sweden, they often don’t shoot. Because when you go on the boards here, it’s a scoring chance. If you shoot from there in Sweden, it’s not as dangerous.”