By Ben Sullivan
Do the Flyers ever hire an executive or draft a player who hasn’t had a connection to this franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since Madonna was 16?
They brought back former star Ron Hextall to be general manager and last night they drafted Hextall’s distant relative with their first pick in the draft.
Travis Sanheim got his first taste of how loud Flyers fans can be, and he liked what he heard.
After the “Let’s go Flyers!” chants had subsided, Hextall called Sanheim’s name as the No. 17 pick at the 2014 NHL Draft, held at Wells Fargo Center for the first time.
“Being in the building today, the fans were crazy and you can see the passion. So I know it’s a hockey city, and I’m lucky to be here,” Sanheim said. “Leading up to the Philadelphia pick, when the fans started going nuts and you could feel the passion in the building and I was starting to shake, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to stand if they picked me. It’s a great feeling.”
The Flyers have made a concerted effort to bolster their defense corps with their top picks the past two drafts. They selected Samuel Morin in the first round and Robert Hagg in the second round in 2013.
Sanheim is the ninth defenseman drafted by Philadelphia in the past three years.
“We’ve got a real good young group of defensemen now. We have a real good young group of forwards on our big team,” Hextall said. “If you look at our guys, it’s a young group up there. So these guys are going to join these young forwards in two, three, four years. You’ve got a mental picture in your mind of our team in three or four years, and I get excited. I get really excited.”
There were reports in the hours before the draft that the Flyers were discussing a trade with the Florida Panthers to move up to the No. 1 pick, presumably to take defenseman Aaron Ekblad, whom the Panthers ended up selecting.
“We tried a number of things,” Hextall said, calling reports that the deal broke down due to the Flyers’ refusal to part with forward Wayne Simmonds “false.”
Sanheim, 6-foot-3, 181 pounds, was rated No. 53 by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters eligible for the draft. The Flyers took notice of Sanheim during the latter part of his rookie season with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. He also was highly noticeable playing for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, when he had six assists.
“We really liked him. In the second half of the year, the kid just rose and rose and rose,” said Hextall, who is from Brandon, Manitoba, about an hour from Sanheim’s hometown of Elkhorn, Manitoba. “And if you look at him, he’s a young boy. There’s a lot of upside. He’s going to fill out and get a lot bigger.”
Sanheim finished with five goals and 24 assists and was plus-25 in 67 games for Calgary as a rookie. Those numbers and his solid international play helped him jump up from No. 167 in Central Scouting’s midterm rankings.
Sanheim will continue his development in juniors next season.
“I can tell you [Flyers player development coach] Kjell Samuelsson, he might as well get a place out in Calgary this year; he’s going to be out there a lot,” Hextall said. “And so it’s now time for Travis to take the next step and work hard and eat right and develop his body and develop himself mentally and become a more impact player in the Western League. There’s a growth period here. He’s a long ways from playing in the NHL.”
Sanheim wasn’t sure he was going to be selected in the first round, but he had an inkling following an interview with Flyers personnel Thursday that Philly was going to select him.
“I had a feeling it was going to be first round,” said Sanheim, whose mother’s stepbrother is related to Hextall. “My Under-18s were kind of where my stock rose, and that was after Central Scouting came out with their rankings. I had a feeling I was going higher than where they had me ranked.”
“He’s a pretty good skater and he sees the ice well, and that’s a guy I model my game after,” he said.
The Flyers have five picks during the final six rounds of the draft on Saturday.