Awards season is just around the corner and one honor which always captures the eye is the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy for most improved Flyer.
It’s recognition that is particularly special to the players because it’s voted upon by the players.
As the second half of the season unfolded, it appeared defenseman Radko Gudas might be the frontrunner for the prize because he was enjoying the best season of his career, including a double-digit plus number in plus-minus ratings.
Then second-year center Nolan Patrick got hot, recording a career-high four-point effort in one game and eventually earning promotion to first-line center.
But, as they say in horse racing, coming up fast on the outside is a defenseman by the name of Travis Sanheim, who just might win the race to the finish line.
After shuttling back and forth between the Flyers and Phantoms last season, Sanheim has established himself in the NHL this season.
He’s tied with Shayne Gostisbehere (28 points) for the scoring lead for Flyers defensemen and his eight goals are tops in that category.
As a result, coach Scott Gordon has put Sanheim with Ivan Provorov on the Flyers’ No. 1 defense pairing.
The key for Sanheim’s rapid progress this season might be summed up in one word: Confidence.
You can see it in the way he plays now. He’s not timid about joining the rush or making plays in the offensive zone.
Several of his goals have come from close range.
Gordon likes what he sees. Clearly, keeping Sanheim’s skating ability in mind, the coach is giving the player a little more freedom to join the attack.
“When you start your breakout, there’s an opportunity to get out of the gate before the guy you’re covering to be part of the next play,’’ Gordon explained.
“There are defensemen on your team who usually are more aggressive with it. They also have better ability to get back. That’s something in today’s game – whether they’re the third man on the attack or the fourth man on the attack – that’s an important part of being able to score off the rush.’’
Sanheim is all smiles these days. He and Provorov have bonded. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Sanheim could challenge Gostisbehere for that coveted point spot on the first power-play unit.
As for the confidence aspect of it, Sanheim nodded in agreement.
“I think it takes time,’’ he said. “At all levels I’ve played at, it’s something I’ve gradually added to my game. Just knowing when not to do too much, when to go and pick your chances.
“I’m better off joining and coming in late. It’s kind of the next wave from the attack. . .not necessarily skating it end to end. It’s understanding the right moments in the game and certain situations. There’s a lot that goes into it.’’
The former first-round draft pick (2014, 17th overall) also has improved the defensive side of his game, hence Gordon’s faith that he can go up against the Crosbys and Ovechkins on a nightly basis.
Having played for Gordon both in Philadelphia and Allentown has helped.
“I think he (Gordon) understands what my game is all about,’’ Sanheim said. “I understand what he expects of me. He’s playing me in a lot of situations, shown a lot of confidence in me.
“I’m just trying to take the opportunities as they present themselves.’’
And about the possibility of someday playing with Claude and Jake and Sean and James on that vaunted top power play?
“I’m not looking too far ahead,’’ he said. “I’m just taking it as it comes, do my job and help the team win games.’’
Come to think of it, if Sanheim keeps up this high level of play, he will get some consideration for the Barry Ashbee Trophy for Flyers’ best defenseman as well.
Whatever the outcome for the two awards, Sanheim’s upward trend bodes well for the Flyers’ future.