ELMONT, N.Y. – There are plenty of good reasons why the Flyers entered Wednesday night action as one of the NHL’s early surprises, with a 10-7-1 record, a five-game winning streak and a second-place standing in the Metropolitan Division.
You could point to Travis Konecny’s 11 goals in 18 games or goaltender Carter Hart’s 6-3-0 record, 2.40 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.
But if you want perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all, how about Travis Sanheim’s team-leading 16 points and almost 26 minutes of ice time?
Sanheim, 27, is off to the fastest start of his career and a lot of that might have to do with his promotion to the No. 1 defense pairing. With Ivan Provorov, Tony DeAngelo and Justin Braun residing at different addresses, it only made sense for Sanheim to be moved up a tandem or two.
What’s been the biggest improvement and has more responsibility played into that?
“Probably my mindset,” Sanheim said as the Flyers prepared to meet the New York Islanders at UBS Arena. “Knowing there was more of an opportunity and not really worrying about the outside noise. Just focusing on my game, trying to be the best version of myself and it’s been working so far. I’m going to continue to stick with that.”
Much was made of last year’s big contract signing. The Flyers rewarded their first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft with an eight-year, $50-million contract which was scheduled to kick in this year. But with the Flyers entering a total rebuild, Sanheim nearly ended up getting traded to St. Louis for defenseman Torey Krug at season’s end. Only Krug’s decision to not waive his no-trade clause kept the deal from going through.
“The contract didn’t weigh on me,” Sanheim said. “Maybe at the start of the year when you’re preparing for a season and you’re in negotiations a little bit. I don’t think that affected my season at all.
“Obviously going into the summer you want to prove to everyone you’re worth your value. So that was a big motivation for me coming into this season. I’ve been happy with my play so far.”
Besides figuring into a lot of the Flyers’ victories with his own play, he’s also done his part to make his young partner, Cam York, a better player as well.
Right now, Sanheim is playing the game with a lot of confidence and it shows. Coach John Tortorella likes to match up his best defensive pairing against the top lines of opponents and the Flyers’ duo has more than held its own.
“I think sometimes in the NHL you overthink it at times,” Sanheim said. “Maybe you don’t understand how good you are and the plays that you can make. For me, getting comfortable and understanding that I belong here and that I can be a good player in this league. . .I’ve done it at the junior level and then when you get to the American League, it takes time as well.
“It’s takes guys in the NHL a lot of time to establish their games. So obviously it’s taken me a bit of time but I like where my game is at right now. I want to keep growing this season.”
Another factor: Sanheim met with Tortorella over the summer and the two kind of aired things out. That confab went well and now each man knows what the other wants.
“Yeah, I think we have a great relationship right now,” Sanheim said. “We’re talking lots. Every game he’s talking to me on the bench. It’s little plays that I’m making. For me, it’s understanding what’s he’s expecting.
“I think he’s expecting it every night. There are no nights off. You can see that with our whole group. It’s been a big change this season and it’s been working.”
>Staal back in lineup
Defenseman Marc Staal, out since the fourth game of the season, was scheduled to return to the Flyers’ lineup on Wednesday night. Louis Belpedio, who played 12 of the 14 games in Staal’s absence, was slated to sit out the Islanders game.