If it looked like the Flyers’ defense was playing a game of musical chairs last season, you weren’t imagining things.
Injuries, illness and inconsistent play all conspired to help produce the NHL’s worst goals-allowed total (201 in a 56-game season).
Of course, shaky goaltending and poor backchecking by the forwards didn’t help any but that’s a story for another day.
In the present, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher realized he had to overhaul his defense, starting with an infusion of experienced leadership, so he went out and added Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen and Keith Yandle.
These moves certainly heartened some of the remaining young backliners such as Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim.
It appears Sanheim, who was re-signed to a two-year contract ($4.675 million per season) on Saturday, will be paired with Ristolainen, acquired by free agency after a stellar career in Buffalo.
While Sanheim did partner up with Phil Myers (traded to Nashville in the offseason) much of the past two seasons, there were also stretches where Sanheim seemed to be playing with someone different almost nightly.
If Flyers coach Alain Vigneault can just keep three steady pairs of defensemen together, it should help a lot toward keeping pucks out of the Philadelphia net.
During a media Zoom call on Monday, the 25-year-old Sanheim said the situation going into next month’s training camp looks much brighter.
“I think that (instability) was something that they looked at and wanted to address,’’ Sanheim said. “It’s difficult playing different partners, different positions, whether it’s left or right. I think to be able to kind of settle in, find somebody, find some chemistry with somebody is going to make each other better and make our team better…’’
Fletcher is counting on the new additions to provide a more steadying influence in the defensive zone and breaking up opponent rushes. It’s something that’s been lacking since the unexpected retirement of Matt Niskanen two seasons back.
“I think you got guys that have been there, done that,’’ Sanheim said. “Ellis has played a lot of big games. I think we’re going to rely on those guys to come in and settle things down a little bit. I think we need that. There were certain nights there where maybe we ran into being a younger group. Sometimes you need that voice or that calmness and somebody that’s done it before. I think we’re going to learn a lot from those guys. I’m excited to not only meet them but learn from them as well.’’
Speaking of veterans, Sanheim is entering his fifth season so he’s not considered a kid anymore. Perhaps he can play a bigger role in turning around the defense’s fortunes.
Does he see himself as more of a leader now?
“Yeah, I think so,’’ he said. “I think you’re starting to establish yourself more. You’re starting to feel like you’re grabbing a bigger piece of the pie. For me, leadership is a part of that and being able to show that with my experience and what I’ve kind of been through along the way that I can step up and start to provide that role.’’
On paper, a proposed Sanheim-Ristolainen pairing shows promise.
“All the additions that we’ve made this offseason, I think it’s exciting to get to know all those guys,’’ Sanheim said. “I haven’t spoken with him (Ristolainen) personally, but I’ve heard some great things. I’ve spoken to assistant coach Mike Yeo about him) and Chuck about him as well. I’m excited to get to know him, potentially play with him. I know our forwards have hated to play against him and go up against him every night, so if he can bring that to our side it can be a great pair.’’
Overall, the Flyers appear to be headed back in the right direction.
“A lot of changes, a lot of new faces,’’ Sanheim said. “I think everyone’s excited. I think we see a lot of good things in the moves that were made and gets us excited to get back to Philly. I know speaking with the other guys and the potential that we see, Chuck’s done his job. Now it’s up to us to come together as a group and show him the moves that he made and why he did them.’’
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