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It’s especially important that Ivan Provorov make the Philadelphia Flyers, and here’s why

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The big story in Flyers training camp this year is Ivan Provorov’s battle to make the big club. Here’s why the outcome is so important.

New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Training camp for the Philadelphia Flyers isn’t lacking for storylines. There are new additions like Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon who are getting used to their surroundings. There’s a fierce competition for spots on the third and fourth lines. And there’s also the elephant in the room — will Year Two of the Dave Hakstol era be an extension of the strong close to the 2015-16 season, or will the Flyers remain a playoff bubble team?

But while all of these stories are worthy of coverage, they’ve taken a backseat to the question on the lips of legions of Flyers fans: will Ivan Provorov make the team out of camp?

Fellow 2015 Draftee Travis Konecny also has a shot at making the club, but Provorov’s chances are understandably better. After all, Provorov tore up the Western Hockey League last season, scoring 73 points in 61 games, leading his club to the Memorial Cup tournament, and winning CHL Defenseman of the Year. Konecny may be one of the better forward prospects in hockey, but there’s a good case that Provorov is the best defenseman prospect not yet in the NHL. Even at age 19, he’s showing signs of being truly ready for a new challenge.

It’s clear that Provorov will be given a real chance to make the Flyers out of camp, despite his young age and lack of professional experience. But as I noted back in July, general manager Ron Hextall is not in the business of guaranteeing roster spots to even the most impressive prospects. Not only does the prospect have to prove physically ready for a full 82-game NHL season, he must clearly outperform a current roster player in order to nail down a spot. That makes Provorov’s task this year far more difficult than the one facing Zach Werenski, the only defenseman prospect with a strong case for being on Provorov’s level. Columbus has set aside a spot in the opening night lineup for their prized young blueliner. Hextall will do Provorov no such favors.

As a result, many fans have approached Provorov’s attempt to make the Flyers with the mentality of "Hey, that would be neat," rather than viewing the blue-chip defenseman as a necessary addition to the roster. However, I believe this understates the importance of Provorov’s push to be in the opening night lineup. Not only would the addition of Provorov to the roster likely go a long way towards improving the team’s biggest weakness, a decision to return the 19-year old defenseman to the WHL comes with some troubling implications, either for Provorov or for the front office itself.

Breaking down the Flyers’ current defense without Provorov

Entering the 2016-17 season, Philadelphia has seven defensemen under contract with significant NHL experience under their belts. Michael Del Zotto, Radko Gudas, Shayne Gostisbehere, Mark Streit, Nick Schultz, Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning all were lineup mainstays last season with the big club, and the path of least resistance for Hextall would be to simply roll with them as the defense to start the year.

Of course, just because the Flyers have seven defensemen capable of taking NHL minutes does not guarantee that they will flourish in those minutes. So just how strong is this Philadelphia defense without Provorov?

Philadelphia’s blueline entering 2016-17 can be best described by paraphrasing a classic Western — ‘The Good, The Meh, and The Ugly.’ We’ll start with the good — Gostisbehere, Del Zotto and Gudas.

Gostisbehere’s electric rookie season has many fans assuming that he’ll go down as the first impact homegrown defenseman for the franchise in over ten years. Del Zotto developed into an all-three-situations defenseman, and likely will function as the Flyers’ No. 1 on the depth chart. And despite not being a true "puck-moving" blueliner, Gudas posted the best 5v5 on-ice attempt differentials of any Flyers’ defenseman last season, and was rewarded with a four-year, $13.4 million extension this past offseason.

Just like Clint Eastwood’s character in Sergio Leone’s classic flick, the "Good" are not flawless. Gostisbehere must drive play at 5v5 better, Del Zotto can’t fall back into bad habits, and Gudas must remain aggressive enough in the neutral zone to overshadow his inconsistencies with the puck. Still, they all look like useful defensemen at the very least.

Mark Streit falls somewhere between "above-average" and "legitimate liability." Via the eye test, he looks to have slowed, and his manually-tracked zone exit metrics have dropped from defense-leading back in 2013-14 to middle-of-the-pack this past season. Still, it’s tough to accurately evaluate Streit’s recent performance, since he was joined at the hip to Nick Schultz. Streit posted a poor 47.6% Corsi For percentage with Schultz and a solid 50.9% Corsi For away from him (per stats.hockeyanalysis.com). Streit may be declining, but it’s possible that the presence of Schultz has made his metrics a not-entirely-accurate window into how much Streit has left in the tank.

A top-four of Del Zotto, Gudas, Gostisbehere and Streit is far from awful, even accounting for Streit's decline. But now we’ll move into where the Flyers defense begins to get ugly.

Let’s start with the aforementioned Nick Schultz and Andrew MacDonald. Because the two defensemen have long NHL track records, we can evaluate their statistical performances over the past three seasons to determine just how they grade out by the numbers.

Since 2013-14, 164 defensemen received at least 2000 NHL minutes at 5v5. Looking at that dataset, let’s evaluate where Schultz and MacDonald ranked among their peers in five Relative on-ice statistical categories. "Relative" even strength metrics tell us whether a player’s team performs better or worse when that player is on the bench.

For example, if the Flyers score 50% of the total 5v5 goals when Player A is on the ice, but while he is sitting on the bench they score 55% of the 5v5 goals, Player A would be said to have a "Relative Goals For" percentage of negative-5%, a poor performance. We can do the same for Corsi For (all on-ice shot attempts), Fenwick For (all on-ice unblocked attempts), Shots on Goal For, and Expected Goals For (Corsi weighted by shot type and location).

By using relative metrics, we can rank players across the league via percentiles as well. The higher the percentile, the better the player performed relative to his teammates on a league-wide scale. The lower the percentile, the more they dragged down their team’s performance in the category.

Unfortunately for Schultz and MacDonald, they fall into the latter description in almost every even strength on-ice stat.

Player Relative Corsi For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Fenwick For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Shots For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Goals For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Expected Goals For Percentage Percentile (and rank)
Nick Schultz 5.49% (155th) 11.59% (145th) 17.07% (136th) 17.68% (135th) 38.41% (101st)
Andrew MacDonald 1.22% (162nd) 1.22% (162nd) 2.44% (160th) 45.12% (90th) 7.32% (152nd)

All statistics score/venue-adjusted and from Corsica.Hockey. All defensemen (164) with at least 2000 5v5 minutes over past three seasons.

Over the past three years, Schultz ranked below the 20th percentile in on-ice Corsi, Fenwick, Shots on Goal, and Goals For percentage relative to his teammates. Only in Expected Goals does he move into passable territory, implying that at least the quality of shots created and allowed with Schultz on the ice was more favorable to his team than raw counts would portend. Unfortunately, Corsi For percentage is a better predictor of future Goals For percentage than the xG metric on Corsica, so he’s essentially hitched his ride to a less useful stat in terms of projecting his future performance.

MacDonald somehow comes off even worse than Schultz. Only two NHL defensemen posted a worse Relative Corsi For percentage over the past three seasons than MacDonald, and the same goes for Relative Fenwick. And while Schultz mostly hovers in the league's 10-20th percentile range in these metrics, MacDonald languishes down in single digits for every metric with the exception of relative Goals For percentage. But just as in the case of Schultz, MacDonald's best performance comes in a statistic that isn’t as repeatable as shot-based metrics, so if MacDonald continues to linger in the sub-10th percentile range in those, his relative Goals For percentage will likely follow.

Just a glance at these statistics and the outcomes they describe make it clear — positive on-ice results do not occur when Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz play for their NHL teams. In fact, their relative metrics are so poor that both rank below the 20th percentile line in all shot-based statistics, and neither are better than 50% of their peers in relative Goals For percentage and Expected Goals percentage.

In other words: their "good" metrics aren’t that good, and their bad ones place them among the worst defensemen in the league. That’s a major issue for Philadelphia, especially because the current roster without Provorov assumes that at least one of MacDonald or Schultz will be starting on opening night, and there’s a very good chance that both of them might get the nod.

And now we come to our last defenseman, Brandon Manning. In some corners of the Flyers’ online fanbase, Manning is viewed as the worst blueliner on the roster, a player barely worthy of NHL minutes. However, that does not match up with certain even strength advanced metrics or the opinion of the Flyers’ front office, who gave Manning a two-year extension this offseason.

So who’s right on Brandon Manning? The stats actually speak to both narratives.

Player Relative Corsi For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Fenwick For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Shots For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Goals For Percentage Percentile (and rank) Relative Expected Goals For Percentage Percentile (and rank)
Brandon Manning 74.05% (41st) 60.76% (62nd) 52.53% (75th) 39.24% (96th) 7.59% (146th)

All statistics score/venue-adjusted and from Corsica.Hockey. All defensemen (158) with at least 800 5v5 minutes in 2015-16.

We can’t use the three-year, 2000 minute threshold like we did for MacDonald and Schultz because Manning simply hasn’t spent enough time in the NHL. But limiting our dataset to defensemen who played at least 800 minutes at 5v5 last season gives us a total of 158 blueliners, similar to our 164-man sample above.

The shot metrics look favorably upon Manning. In fact, his ranking in the 74.05% percentile of Relative Corsi For percentage is borderline first-pair territory, an eye-popping point in Manning’s corner. He performed slightly worse when looking at Fenwick or Shots on Goal, but he still lands above the 50th percentile in each. With these metrics in front of us, it’s easier to understand why Manning’s HERO Chart looks so surprisingly impressive.

But the weighted shot and goal metrics tell a different tale. It’s Manning’s Relative Expected Goals For percentage that is most interesting, since like Corsi, it accounts for all on-ice shot attempts. But while Corsi considers each attempt to be equal, Expected Goals weights each attempt for quality. Apparently, that weighting process was enough to drop Manning from the 74th percentile all the way down to around the 7th. It’s easy to understand why those who favor the eye test to evaluate players would be so turned off by Manning’s performance last year, since the Flyers were regularly getting caved in at 5v5 with him on the ice after accounting for shot quality.

As noted previously, Corsi is a better predictor of future goal outcomes than Expected Goals, so that’s a point in favor of the Manning defenders. But such a large discrepancy is legitimately concerning, and it’s fair for Manning skeptics to believe that he might be someone who "breaks the system" due to poor reads and bad positioning resulting in a deluge of high-quality chances against.

In any case, at least there are some positive 5v5 metrics surrounding Brandon Manning, and therefore a degree of optimism regarding his future. The same cannot be said for MacDonald and Schultz, the two weakest links on the Flyers’ blueline.

The state of the defense makes Provorov decision especially important

Right now, the Flyers have three no-brainer starters on defense, one aging player who is still likely useful in the right circumstances, one young-ish player who looks either good or awful depending upon which metric is cited, and two vets who look awful in basically every metric available.

Into this messy situation steps Ivan Provorov.

Back in July, Ron Hextall went into great detail regarding his prospect promotion philosophy. Using those quotes, I theorized a "prospect checklist" that Hextall uses before deeming one "ready" to make the big club out of camp. Let’s revisit that checklist, and then move through each of the questions as they pertain to Provorov.

1. Is he physically ready for the grind of an 82-game NHL season and playoffs?

2. Did he have a strong season last year at a lower level (CHL, college hockey, Euro leagues, AHL)?

3. In training camp, has he consistently showcased the skillset that allowed him to thrive at that lower level?

4. Is he better, right now, than a current player at his same position on the NHL roster who fills a similar role?

Our first requirement is a subjective one, but after watching Provorov excel at development camp this summer, interviewing him multiple times, and then seeing him hold his own during the first days of training camp, I feel confident in stating that he is physically ready for the NHL. He’s a solid 203 pounds and had no trouble fighting off NHL forwards in the corners during Sunday’s scrimmage, nor playing in over 28 minutes in Monday's preseason opener.

No. 2 is a slam dunk. It’s tough to argue with a season in which Provorov was voted the best defenseman in all of junior hockey. So far, so good.

It’s still too early to get a full read on #3, as Provorov has spent just three days on the ice with the veterans at practice and has appeared in just one preseason game. But so far, Provorov’s performance has been impressive. Over the weekend, it was obvious that his attacking mentality without the puck does not disappear against top competition. And while his play with the puck has not been mesmerizing in the Gostisbehere-ian sense of the word, his passing and stickhandling have been impressive as well. Provorov's +16.6% Corsi Relative performance in the preseason opener didn't hurt, either.

He caught the attention of his teammates and coaches as well. Jordan Weal, beneficiary of Provorov’s breakout pass in the scrimmage, praised the defenseman’s skillset and stated, "He’s a really good player. You can see it in his skating and his passing. He's got a lot of confidence. He obviously tore up the WHL, it's a great league, and it's going to be exciting to see him moving forward."

Steve Mason also noted this weekend that Provorov looks "very calm out there," while head coach Dave Hakstol characterized the defenseman’s play as "solid and efficient." Let’s call this a work in progress, but note that the early signs are positive.

And that brings us to No. 4, the question that will likely decide Provorov’s fate so long as he doesn’t fall flat on his face in the remainder of camp: is he better than a current defenseman on the Flyers’ roster?

The hard truth is that the bar isn’t particularly high. As noted previously, Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz rank in the bottom-fifth of the NHL in terms of 5v5 on-ice performance over the past three years. These aren’t solid third pair defensemen; they are low-end NHL players when it comes to driving positive results. And if you buy Expected Goals as a better way to evaluate Brandon Manning than Corsi, then he’s right there with them.

It would be one thing if all seven of the Flyers’ defensemen were stationed in the 50th percentile or above in most of the on-ice categories. Then, Provorov would need to prove to the coaching staff and front office that he is already an above-average NHL defenseman. Instead, he really just has to prove that he’s better than one of MacDonald, Schultz, or Manning — a much less difficult task.

Even at age 19, you would hope that your top prospect — supposedly one of the best prospects in the world — is currently superior to players who rank close to the bottom in the NHL at their position. This leads us to why Provorov being sent back to juniors would be so concerning, if the above checklist is correct. Either Provorov is not better than defensemen like Schultz and MacDonald right now, or the Flyers’ front office is not accurately evaluating the talent they have on hand.

This chart helps to illustrate all four possible scenarios.

The scenario in the top-left corner is clearly positive on all counts, so we’ll ignore that one. The top-right scenario would be the right move for Provorov’s development, but concerning in that he’s not even a low-end NHL defenseman as of yet. Even at age 19, that calls into question his eventual ceiling as a player, since as noted previously, by the stats it's a fairly low bar to clear.

Truthfully, I don’t worry too much about the bottom-left scenario, knowing Hextall’s conservative nature when it comes to promoting prospects. But keeping Provorov with the Flyers only to find out that he struggles to drive positive statistical outcomes at 5v5 any better than Schultz or MacDonald would be a devastating blow, if a seemingly unlikely one.

The bottom-right scenario appears more likely to occur. And while I doubt it would have a major negative impact on the development of Provorov, it is worrying for what it would say about the front office. If this is a true competition and the franchise is incorrectly evaluating Provorov as worse than true low-end NHL defensemen, that does not bode well for their ability to identify useful blueliners moving forward. Sure, Provorov will eventually get his NHL shot, but if he’s consistently being saddled with Nick Schultz and Andrew MacDonald types who the organization mistakenly thinks are valuable, then all of the young talent in the world won’t be enough to move the club into Cup contention.

One mistaken evaluation doesn’t mean a front office is immediately terrible, of course. But they can also hint at a flawed process, which is surely something that Ron Hextall wants to avoid.

Conclusion

The outcome of Ivan Provorov’s push to make the Philadelphia Flyers is incredibly important for a number of reasons. To start, the current back half of the Philadelphia defense is very weak, and is in desperate need of upgrade. While Michael Del Zotto, Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas and (to a lesser extent) Mark Streit are at least perfectly competent NHL defensemen, the players at the bottom of the current rotation inspire far less confidence.

Replacing one of the lower-end defensemen with a talent who many believe to be the best young blueliner not in the NHL is a move with a significant amount of upside for the Flyers this season. Provorov doesn’t even have to be great in order to be a massive statistical upgrade over MacDonald or Schultz. Just hovering around the 50th percentile in most categories would be a substantial step up for a team on the playoff bubble.

But the impact of Provorov’s push over the next few weeks goes beyond this season. If the Flyers’ top prospect is unable to make the team out of camp, there are only three possible explanations as to why. First, it’s could be that he’s legitimately not better than players like Schultz, MacDonald and Manning, which would serve to dramatically dampen the hype train for Provorov in the short term. Second, it could be a result of Hextall misevaluating either the talent of Provorov, or the usefulness of players like MacDonald and Schultz, both bad signs for Philadelphia’s future evaluation of defensemen.

Of course, there is a third possibility, which would render this entire column pointless. Hextall’s actual checklist and thought processes behind the Provorov decision could be totally different than what he revealed back in July. In the event of Provorov being returned to Brandon, Flyers fans should definitely be rooting for that, because the alternatives are far less appetizing.

In the end, the best case scenario for everyone involved is that Provorov is truly ready to check off all of Hextall’s boxes, and is in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the regular season against the Los Angeles Kings on October 14th. Flyers fans would obviously be smart to root heavily for that outcome.