Grading Hak & Hex: Sanheim sent down, Rangers debacle

Updated: January 23, 2018 at 12:51 pm by Wes Herrmann

In the past week, the Philadelphia Flyers have won three out of four games, including two over Metropolitan Division foes. You wouldn’t be able to tell that, though, judging by fan’s reactions. Travis Sanheim’s demotion to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms has fans most upset, but the team’s play against the New York Rangers and surprising goalie usage are also included in this week’s analysis of coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall.

Sanheim Sent Down

The biggest dam over the past couple of weeks has finally broke for the Flyers with the team deciding to send Travis Sanheim back to the Phantoms. The rookie defenseman has played just once since Dec. 28 and according to most beat writers was lacking confidence.

Looking at the move in a vacuum, it’s probably the right one. Sanheim wasn’t getting the playing time in the NHL that he sorely needed and playing at an elite level in the AHL is sure to help any confidence issues.

But when you look at the corresponding moves and decisions, it’s an unfortunate one for Philly. Sanheim has better advanced numbers than Brandon Manning — the veteran picked over him — and regularly made a bigger impact. There were some defensive issues for Sanheim, but nothing much worse than what Manning is known for.

With Sanheim instead of Manning, the team could have an elite pairing (Provorov & Gostisbehere), a solid second pairing (Gudas & Sanheim) and a defensive, tough third (MacDonald & Hagg). Instead of that, the Flyers are rolling an excellent first pairing and two bottom pairings.

This decision lies mostly with Hakstol. He’s the one that has lost trust in Sanheim and has used a veteran over him. Hextall’s hand was forced in a way, but I also don’t see this as something that the general manager has a huge problem with. If he had felt strongly about Sanheim playing in the NHL, he would have usurped his coach or advised him in some way.

As for Sanheim himself, this shouldn’t affect his development much — if at all. There’s still things he can learn and while he’s an NHL player, this hiatus should help his confidence.

Also, if there’s an injury or a bad stretch by one of the blueliners, he’ll be the first called up. Mark Alt was promoted in a corresponding move to be the team’s seventh defenseman, but he’ll only play in emergency situations. Any long-term holes will be filled by Sanheim.

Still, it’s hard to find a complete winner in this decision. Sanheim gets playing time, but not at the level he’s suited for. The Flyers take a hit on their talent level and Hakstol comes away looking like he struggles to evaluate his players properly.

The Rangers Debacle

I’ve defended Hakstol in the past, even as most recently as last week, but I’ve never been quite sure that he’ll be the coach to take the Flyers to a Stanley Cup. The Rangers game on Tuesday was the epitome of why a lot of Philly fans feel the same way.

A crucial two points were on the board between the two Metropolitan teams and the Flyers sat just a single point behind New York with a game in hand. If Philly had won they’d still have that game in hand and be a point above one of their biggest rivals.

The Flyers came out strong and even scored the first goal of the game less than three minutes into it. The lead didn’t last long, though, with the Rangers scoring about four minutes later. By the end of the first period, it was 3-1. And by the end of the second, 5-1.

Initially, Philly wasn’t deterred by New York’s first goal, but as the score kept mounting, the team continued to lose spirit. Hakstol responded by never calling a timeout and waiting to change his goalie — a popular momentum ploy — in between the final two stanzas.

I don’t want to judge the Flyers’ temperament in the game too much. Hakstol would know best how his players were feeling and whether a timeout or goalie change could help, but this isn’t an isolated incident for Hakstol, either. He’ll change his netminder during play from time to time, but he’s never been one to call a timeout to rally his team.

Those decisions are magnified even more by Peter Laviolette’s time in Philly, who frequently called timeouts and spoke with passion that was helpful in turning his team’s effort. Hakstol, on the other hand, is almost universally even keeled and soft spoken.

However, two days later, the Flyers came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs by scoring two goals in the first three minutes of the third period. Only the people in the locker room would know for sure, but it’s possible Hakstol was able to rally his troops during the intermission.

What we do know for sure is that Tuesday, Hakstol wasn’t interested in trying anything during the game to try and build momentum for his team.

Neuvirth vs. Devils, Elliott vs. Caps

If you read these regularly, you know I analyze Hakstol’s goalie usage pretty often. He made mistakes regarding it last season and has done some questionable things this year. This past week, though, the coach hit all the right marks.

It wasn’t Elliott’s fault that the Flyers lost to the Rangers, but after giving up five goals, a change is necessary. Michal Neuvirth was given the game against the Maple Leafs Thursday and the 29 year old made some crucial saves to earn the comeback win.

Previously this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hakstol go back to Elliott Saturday against the Devils, and even play him again Sunday. He’s made it very clear this year who he thinks deserves to be the starter.

Instead of giving into his old ways, Hakstol rode the hot hand and gave Neuvirth the start against New Jersey Saturday. The result wasn’t as impressive as the Leafs game, but Neuvirth made some timely saves and earned another win.

Elliott was then awarded the Washington Capitals game and the former St. Louis Blue had a strong outing, making some huge saves to keep the team in the game when they had a 1-0 lead and when the game was tied.

Hakstol deserves credit for getting the right goalie in each game and setting up success for both the netminder and the team. It will be interesting to see who he chooses as the starter tonight against the Detroit Red Wings, but he’s set up so that neither goalie will be the wrong answer.

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