Flyers’ Provorov Failing to Realize No. 1 Defenseman Potential

The Philadelphia Flyers selected Ivan Provorov seventh overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft during the competitive rebuild under former general manager Ron Hextall from 2014-2018. They hoped he could become a foundational piece of the core that could lead them back to Stanley Cup contention. While the Russian defenseman has made significant contributions during his six seasons in the NHL, his inability to enter the top tier of NHL blueliners has contributed to Philadelphia’s failure to break out of the mediocrity holding them back for the majority of the past decade.

Provorov’s Development

Provorov has won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers top defenseman in three of his first five seasons. He has played in 422 consecutive regular season and playoff games and logged significant minutes as a durable workhorse. He looked like he would be the staple of the Philadelphia blue line for years to come after his breakout season in 2019-20 when he starred alongside Matt Niskanen on the top pair for the upstart Flyers in Alain Vigneault’s first season behind the bench.

Ivan Provorov Philadelphia Flyers
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers hoped Provorov could play a role similar to recent Stanley Cup winners like Duncan Keith, Victor Hedman, or Drew Doughty, the unquestioned top guys on the blue line for their respective teams. He looked poised to become a player who could stay in the conversation for the Norris Trophy on an annual basis if his development continued.  

Related: Flyers Need More from Couturier Moving Forward

Niskanen retired following the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Provorov regressed drastically without his steady veteran partner, and the Flyers defense faltered embarrassingly in 2020-21. They allowed more goals than any other NHL team and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in nine seasons. The defenseman they once considered a foundational building block proved he couldn’t carry a top pair. 

Flyers Direction in 2021-22

General manager Chuck Fletcher overhauled the Flyers roster after the disappointing season, and the blue line was his primary focus. His team lacked a proven number one defenseman who could play in all situations, so he acquired Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators. His defensemen lacked the level of intensity needed to withstand the physical style of the NHL, especially in front of their own goal crease. He gave up a massive haul to acquire Rasmus Ristolainen to fill the void. The Flyers lacked a legitimate power-play quarterback, so he signed Keith Yandle in free agency. All three acquisitions addressed elements of the game that Provorov failed to master.

Ryan Ellis, Philadelphia Flyers
Ryan Ellis, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers have faltered again in 2021-22, and Provorov has shown weaknesses in many of the same areas of the game. The 24-year-old has struggled to execute breakout passes to move the puck out of the defensive zone. He has rotated with Yandle on a power-play unit that has been ineffective for most of the season, and he has not added stability as an alternate captain for a disappointing team. Cale Makar embarrassed him during a matchup against the Colorado Avalanche last week with a highlight-reel goal that exemplified Provorov’s lack of confidence in 2021-22.  

Elliotte Friedman of SportsNet spoke recently about Provorov’s struggles this season.

“He looks like he doesn’t know what he wants to do. I think he’s a really talented guy. It’s just really weird to watch. It’s baffling to me.”

-Elliotte Friedman

Ellis has missed most of the season with a nagging injury, which has been a severe disadvantage to the Flyers and Provorov in particular. However, good NHL teams show the ability to withstand injury problems when players step up into new roles. The Pittsburgh Penguins have survived significant injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Washington Capitals have been without Nicklas Bäckström for 29 of their 30 games. The two division rivals have maintained playoff positions by compensating for injuries in ways that the Flyers haven’t, and Provorov is perhaps the most identifiable example of the disparity.

Provorov Falls Short of Best NHL Defensemen

Mike Yeo spoke after the Flyers victory over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday when his defensemen combined for seven points in one of their best efforts of the season.  

“I don’t think you can have success without your defense being part of the offense.”

-Mike Yeo

The Flyers interim head coach recognizes the need in the modern NHL for puck-moving defensemen to drive play as catalysts for forwards on the offensive attack. Provorov hasn’t provided that for a team that ranks 24th in goals per game this season. His expected goals for percentage (xGF%) has dropped to 44.17 in 2021-22, compared to 52.56 in 2019-20 and 50.55 in 2020-21, per Natural Stat Trick.

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The best defensemen in the NHL excel in this area of the game. Provorov’s xGF% pales in comparison to top blueliners like Makar at 57.09, Hedman at 57.25, and Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins at 60.11. The top teams in the Metropolitan Division boast defensemen at an unquestionably higher caliber than Provorov. Adam Fox has solidified himself as a foundational player for the New York Rangers after winning the Norris Trophy in 2020-21 at age 23. The Penguins and Capitals are led by accomplished veterans Kris Letang and John Carlson. The Carolina Hurricanes lost Dougie Hamilton during the offseason, and they have still gotten excellent play on the blue line from Jaccob Slavin and newcomer Tony DeAngelo. 

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Adam Fox, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Provorov has also failed to match the pace of defensemen of the 2015 draft class. Noah Hanifin, drafted two spots ahead of Provorov, has advanced into a contributing role with the upstart Calgary Flames. He has posted an impressive 56.61 xGF% in 2021-22. Zach Werenski, selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets eighth overall, hasn’t dazzled in terms of advanced metrics after signing a lucrative contract extension during the offseason. He still has a comfortable advantage over Provorov with a 47.69 xGF% this season. Thomas Chabot, the 18th overall pick in 2015, is playing a top-pair role for a bad Ottawa Senators team. He has more points, a better plus/minus rating, fewer penalty minutes, more shots, more time on ice, more hits, more takeaways, and fewer giveaways than Provorov in 2021-22. 

Provorov’s Future with the Flyers

The Flyers hope that Ellis can get back in the lineup soon, but they shouldn’t count on a player with a notable injury history just a few weeks ahead of his 31st birthday as their long-term answer as a top defenseman. Provorov will likely benefit from the return of his expected top-pair partner, whenever it might be. His past track record in the NHL suggests that he’ll improve from his current slump and make solid contributions as a complementary player.

The Flyers will need to evaluate the talent on their roster, the need for a long-term head coach, and the overall direction of the franchise in the coming months. The lack of a foundational skater drafted during their long period of rebuilding is a reality they will need to acknowledge. The failure of former second-overall pick Nolan Patrick devastated their chances of finding that piece at center, and the underwhelming development of Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim certainly contributed as well. Provorov’s disappointing regression and unfulfilled expectations mean they haven’t found the rock of their blue line either. 

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