The Philadelphia Flyers were optimistic about 24-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov heading into the 2020-21 season. He led the team in average time on ice (TOI) in each of his first four NHL seasons and played in every regular season and playoff game. He was among a group of promising young Flyers poised to take the next step into the prime years of their respective careers. The team hoped that the continuation of his workhorse style supplemented with increased opportunity for point production on the power play would help him to leap into the top tier of NHL defensemen in his fifth season.
However, the high expectations faltered drastically, and the Flyers finished sixth in the MassMutual East Division. Their goals-against average jumped from 2.77 in 2019-20 to 3.52 in 2020-21. They allowed more goals 2020-21 in 13 fewer games. Their constant defensive zone breakdowns led to repeated blowout losses, and Provorov failed to anchor a defensive unit characteristic of a team fit to contend for a playoff spot.
Problems on the Top Pair
The Flyers did not anticipate the retirement of Matt Niskanen following the 2019-20 season, in which they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the New York Islanders. Niskanen, a right-shot defenseman, played just under 22 minutes per game and provided a steady, calming presence during his only season in Philadelphia on the first defensive pair alongside the left-handed Provorov.
Provorov felt the effects of the sudden announcement in ways that the team did not expect. The Athletic’s Charlie O’Connor pointed to the Flyers’ gamble in counting on 2020-21 as “the season Provorov proved he didn’t need help in the form of a top-pair quality defenseman” (from The Athletic, from “Flyers 2020-21 report card: Grading everyone from Claude Giroux to the coaching staff to Carter Hart,” 5/13/21). However, he didn’t live up to the high expectations that were set for him.
The Flyers never found appropriate pairings on defense in 2020-21 in the absence of Niskanen. Provorov began the season with Shayne Gostisbehere, a risk-taking offensive specialist who has experienced trouble in the defensive zone throughout his career. He ultimately spent most of the time on the top pair partnered with veteran Justin Braun, who is a third-pair, stay-at-home defenseman under ideal circumstances. Bill Meltzer stated as a guest on the Flyers Daily podcast with Jason Myrtetus that “It wasn’t so much Niskanen himself but how the puzzle pieces fit together,” pointing to the lack of adjustments to new roles made by defensemen.
Flyers’ Best Defenseman
Provorov received the Barry Ashbee Memorial Trophy as the Flyers’ top defenseman for the second consecutive season and the third time in his five-year NHL career. He was the logical choice as the leader in most statistical categories among defensemen, including points, shots, blocked shots, ice time, and shorthanded ice time despite his lack of progress.
His point production decreased minimally from 2019-20, going from .52 points per game to .46. The advanced statistics were somewhat favorable for Provorov, as he finished slightly over 50% in Corsi-For percentage despite the multitude of issues surrounding him on the defensive unit and the team overall. His durability continued to be the best part of his game. He again played in every game and finished eighth in the league with 25 minutes in average TOI.
Flyers Struggle on Defense
The Flyers’ disastrous defensive output this season cannot be blamed on one individual problem. The team was dragged down by poor goaltending, sloppy play from the defensemen, and negligent defensive efforts from the forwards. However, a multitude of underlying issues are correlated with Provorov’s struggle to make adjustments in the transition from 2019-20 to 2020-21.
The Flyers went from a strong defensive team to a porous one largely because of their inability to contain top-line players, a role typically expected to be impacted significantly by top-pair defensemen like Provorov. For instance, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals did not record a point in four games against Philadelphia last season but notched 12 points in six games this season. The Flyers also allowed 14 points to Patrice Bergeron and 13 to Brad Marchand in eight games against the Boston Bruins in 2020-21, and New York Rangers winger Mika Zibanejad finished with an astounding 18 points against the orange and black.
The Flyers’ penalty killing unit fell from 11th in the NHL in 2019-20 to 30th this season. Provorov led the team in short-handed ice time but failed to make a substantial impact. He was also one of many players who neglected to establish a physical presence in front of the Flyers’ net and in defensive zone coverage as a whole.
Provorov continued to display some of the strong capabilities that earned him a solid reputation throughout his development in the NHL. However, the missed opportunity to prove his ability to carry the load as a bonafide, number one defenseman for a contending team looms large. It will force the hand of general manager Chuck Fletcher to pursue the most expensive and highly coveted defensemen on the market this offseason, and there is no guarantee he will come up with a suitable solution to fill the void.