Taking a flier on a rising defenseman

Posted: June 29, 2014

His first draft as an NHL general manager always promised an internal tug-of-war for Ron Hextall, a weighing of his philosophy for constructing a sound hockey organization against the depth and doubts of this year's class of talent.

Since the Flyers promoted him to GM last month, Hextall has not hid his belief that a team is best built from the back through the middle of the ice: goaltenders, defensemen, centers. Despite his distinguished career as a goalie, he has maintained - and rightly so - that in today's NHL, possessing a stable of swift, puck-moving defensemen is of paramount importance, given the speed and strategy that characterize the game.

But Hextall acknowledged earlier this week that this year's draft was light on such defensemen, and besides, he wasn't inclined to, in his words, "reinvent the wheel." The Flyers do have some excellent prospects on defense in their system: Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg.

Their presence, presumably, made it easier for Hextall to say what he said last week: He would take the best player available, regardless of that player's position, when the Flyers' first-round pick, the 17th overall in the draft, came around Friday night.

Because of that background and context, the Flyers' selection of Travis Sanheim, an 18-year-old defenseman from Elkhorn, Manitoba, was something of a surprise, and not merely to those who had listened closely to Hextall. It was to Sanheim himself.

"I was a little shocked," he said. "The last two months for me have been crazy, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be selected in the first round or not."

Sanheim has all of one season in the Western Hockey League, one of Canada's three major junior leagues, and his rise was so rapid that it was only in the second half of that season that he began to emerge as a bona-fide first-round prospect.

At the time the Flyers selected Sanheim, several higher-ranked players remained on the board, including Kasperi Kapanen, son of former Flyers forward Sami Kapanen. Just one night after Sixers GM Sam Hinkie banked on Joel Embiid's rehabilitation from foot surgery and on Dario Saric's desire to play in the NBA, Hextall opened himself up to the same sort of second-guessing if Sanheim doesn't develop into an elite NHL defenseman.

Asked what NHL player he might compare himself to, Sanheim said he admired the St. Louis Blues' Jay Bouwmeester, who at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds is one of the league's best-skating and most physical defensemen.

Sanheim is 6-3 and 180 pounds, so he's got a long way to grow to match Bouwmeester's size and strength, and despite Hextall's evaluation of him as an elite skater, there remains a question about whether Sanheim will ever achieve the speed required to excel in the NHL.

At its midterm rankings, the NHL's Central Scouting Service had him as the 167th-best North American skater in the draft. By June, Sanheim had improved to 53d in those rankings - an impressive jump to a still-unimpressive place among the continent's possible draftees.

Hextall was willing to bet that Sanheim's improvement would continue, and neither of them was under any illusions about how much time Sanheim might need to emerge as a pro. Three years seems fair.

The interesting component to the rookie GM's first draft decision is that he and Sanheim have a familial connection, though a distant one.

"His mother married my uncle through marriage," Hextall said in a sentence that sounded like a punch line in a Mel Brooks movie. "I asked her when we picked him how many years it had been. She didn't know."

All cheap shots about Hextall's drafting a family member notwithstanding, this will be a pick worth tracking throughout his tenure as general manager. He took a chance here, trying to bolster an area that the Flyers already believe to be a long-term strength. He drafted another young defenseman when the organization has three waiting in the wings, needing only time to mature into the Flyers' future along the blue line.

It's difficult to argue that Ron Hextall did what he said he would do - that he selected the best player available. It's indisputable that he drafted a player at what has become hockey's most important position.

The clock starts now, for both of them.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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