Our week-long look at the top young talent in the Flyers’ organization ends today, as we complete our five-part mid-season update to the Flyers Top 25 Under 25. If you missed or want to go back through any of the first four parts, here’s your chance:
And with that, we move on to the final five.
No. 5: Travis Sanheim - D, Lehigh Valley, AHL
Travis Sanheim has been a staple on the Lehigh Vally Phantoms blue line all season, playing alongside 2013 first-round selection Samuel Morin. It is very possible that we see the pairing playing together in the NHL as early as next season. (Did you know: if the pairing of Sanheim/Morin was stacked on top of each other, they would combine to be over 13 feet? The Flyers severely lack size, and it does seem that that matters in the NHL.)
Sanheim was known as an offensive force in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen, putting up 65 and 68 points in his last two seasons respectively. However his offensive firepower has not fully translated to the American Hockey League just yet. This is not a bad thing, though, as Sanheim has developed his game very well in other areas. The Flyers also do not need Sanheim to become an offensive powerhouse on the blue line a la Shayne Gostisbehere, but he will easily make a reliable player for the second power-play unit.
When Sanheim was selected with the 17th selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, it was a large risk taken by the Flyers. He seemingly came out of nowhere, and at the start of 2013-14 season he was ranked 167th amongst North American skaters. Mid-season rankings saw him shoot up to the 53rd spot in the Central Scouting rankings. With the Flyers selecting Sanheim so early, they took a flyer (jokes!) on a player who could continue to grow into a competent NHLer or a player that might have been a flash in the pan. There is still plenty of time for Sanheim to grow, and if Ron Hextall has preached one thing in his tenure as Flyers GM, it is patience.
The NHL trade deadline is fast approaching, and if the Flyers continue their downward spiral they could very well look to move defensemen who are not in future plans such as Michael Del Zotto, Mark Streit and Nick Schultz. If they are sellers, and Hextall does move out these older players, look for Sanheim to be a possible call up to the NHL squad, and if he does not play on the team this season the possibility of him making the team out of camp next year is very high.
— Joe Pergola
No. 4: Travis Konecny - F, Philadelphia, NHL
Travis Konecny having made the NHL seemed like an early Christmas gift to fans back in October, who were both simply looking for something new in the team’s forward ranks and were hoping to see the team’s youth movement really get underway. And when the 19-year old forward burst out of the gate with seven points in his first eight NHL games, the hype train was absolutely rolling at full speed ahead. Since we’re talking about the 2016-17 Flyers here, though, things have predictably gotten worse for him since then. Konecny went about seven weeks without a goal from mid-November until New Year’s Day, he was even healthy scratched a few times, and is currently injured with what is likely a foot/ankle problem that will have him out of the lineup until some time in March. So did we get ahead of ourselves with the hype for Konecny? Should we be worried?
The short answers to those two questions, respectively: sort of, and not really. We talked about this back in October. Expectations for young first-round draft picks are always really high, probably too high, and when we see someone like Konecny get out to the start he did, we tend to forget that he’ll cool down eventually because the NHL is really hard to score goals in, for everyone, let alone 19-year-olds. The respondents to our admittedly unscientific survey from last fall expected Travis Konecny to be around 0.65 points per game this season, and as we talked about in that October piece, that was always a very, very lofty goal to set. The average player who plays his rookie season in his draft + 2 year, coming into this season, scored around 0.37 points per game. In that sense, Travis Konecny is slightly ahead of the pack with his current clip of 0.43 points per game. Does this guarantee that he’s going to be amazing for years to come? Of course not. But if you were excited about Konecny in October, what you’ve seen so far definitely shouldn’t have you unexcited.
Are there valid concerns about the young forward? Sure. His play defensively so far has left a lot to be desired, and was the main reason he (still unjustifiably, in my opinion) sat for four straight games in the past month. And his current injury, while possibly just a one-off, does open up the question: can a guy of Konecny’s stature and aggressive playing style make it through 82-game seasons regularly without suffering serious injury? There will likely still be a little bit of room for Konecny to add some strength, particularly if he adds some inches to his 5’10” frame, but how much more weight can you put on a player like that before you risk losing some of his explosiveness? These are questions the Flyers will have to work with as Konecny really hits his prime in a few years.
But there’s a pretty good case to be made that Travis Konecny has the kind of creativity offensively that not many (...any?) other players on this roster currently have. One look at what the Flyers have done since the All-Star Break — a series of time in which Konecny has missed a lot of games, for aforementioned reasons — shows just how valuable that is, and just what this team may look like without it. This is a learning year for Travis Konecny, one that we can and should expect him to build upon and improve on next season, and he’s still already one of the most dynamic players on the Flyers’ roster. Don’t worry too much about the question marks — we’re going to have fun watching him for a long time.
— Kurt R.
No. 3: Shayne Gostisbehere - D, Philadelphia, NHL
The concern with Shayne Gostisbehere’s second season in the NHL isn’t the fact that his scoring numbers have dropped precipitously from last year. Most of us knew that his run from last year, while truly breathtaking, was probably not 100 percent sustainable based on the percentages, and this year those have swung all the damn way in the other direction. Shit happens. The concern with this year also isn’t that he’s been scratched multiple times. I mean, that does concern me, but more from the perspective of coaching, not from what Ghost is doing. Heck, I’m not even that concerned about his apparent struggles defensively. Sure, he hasn’t been very good in the defensive zone, but we were never exactly expecting Ghost to be a defensive maven. Shayne Gostisbehere’s job, at its core, is to push play up ice and help the Flyers score more goals than the other team. Yes, his problems in the defensive zone hinder him from being able to achieve that goal, and yes, his on-ice goal numbers this year have been ghastly. But I’m very much of the opinion that, long-run, the whole package of things he does well vs. things he does not do well will break positively for the Flyers. What I have seen from Ghost through 52 games this year does not change that, not yet at least.
No, the real question is this: will Ghost continue to be the player we know he can be despite the on-ice adversity he’s faced this season? You and I can sit here and talk all we want about how much of Ghost’s bad year has just been a product of bad luck and factors out of his control. Personally, I think it’s a lot. But when you go from the rookie season that Ghost had last year, in which it seemed like everything he touched turned to gold for four straight months, to this year, in which the guy couldn’t buy a break if he signed a new contract tomorrow, that can provide a bit of a shock no matter how much of it isn’t really up to him. When you have doubts about what you’re doing on the ice, that affects your play. Sometimes I think the notion of “is that guy playing with enough confidence?” is overblown, but it very well applies to a player like Ghost, who needs to be confident in his high-end abilities if he wants to be successful. Do the benchings and goals against start forcing him to play differently? I would hope that’s not the case.
For example, Ghost’s aggressive play in the neutral zone was a highlight of his 2015-16 season that didn’t get much attention, and it’s a way he can be successful defensively without having to be great in his own third of the ice (somewhere we know he will probably never be great). Getting burned by that aggressiveness repeatedly can cause some players to rethink how they play the game, and I want to believe that the struggles he’s had this year won’t stop him from playing a style with which he’s already proven to be an effective player.
That’s not to say Ghost shouldn’t be working on improving his coverage and awareness in the defensive zone, which has been a problem and is something that he should do everything he can to improve himself in, and is something that any coach, not just Dave Hakstol, isn’t going to like to see. But at some point, you have to let Ghost be Ghost. In this space last time around, I said that getting too bogged down in what Shayne Gostisbehere isn’t forces you to forget about the great things that Shayne Gostisbehere is. Yes, it’s easy to forget about the great things that Shayne Gostisbehere is when the Flyers are scoring on an absurdly low 4.63 percent of their 5-on-5 shots with him on the ice. But just like he wasn’t going to continue scoring at the clip he was last year, he is not going to continue scoring at the low rates he has been this year. For all of our sakes, I hope the Shayne Gostisbehere we saw last year is the same one we’ll be seeing for the next several.
— Kurt R.
No. T-1: Sean Couturier - F, Philadelphia, NHL
[Ed. note: Yep! We’ve got a tie in the top spot. Couturier and Ivan Provorov both had five first place votes, four second-place votes, and one third-place vote. Rather than try and break that tie somehow, we’re just going to award them both the number 1 spot and get on with it.]
It can be hard to believe that Sean Couturier is still, towards the end of his sixth NHL season, just 24 years old. (And he doesn’t turn 25 until December, so he’s still got one more go-round in the 25 Under 25 next summer!) And despite his never quite taking that step towards being a high-end top-6 center that fans were hoping they’d get when the Flyers drafted him, you could argue that every year since his rookie year has at least been a slight step forward for Couturier. And with the season Couturier had last season — injury-plagued, but remarkably efficient as a scorer at even-strength and as a play-driver despite tough minutes — the optimism was there that Couturier was on the verge of becoming a two-way center in the mold of a Patrice Bergeron, or at least one on the level of a Jordan Staal-type. Of course, the progress Couturier showed last year only leads to heightened expectations, which makes this season — Couturier’s first real step back in his six-season NHL career — all the more disheartening.
If you wanted to take the glass-half-full approach, you’d point out that in terms of on-ice shot attempt numbers, Couturier’s still right around where he was last season. With Couturier on the ice last year, the Flyers got about 4.1 percent more of the share of on-ice shot attempts than they did with him off. This year, that same number is around 3.3 percent — less, but not so much that it raises any eyebrows, and still very valuable. And he’s actually shooting the puck slightly more than he was last year. But most never doubted that Couturier was a solid defensive player and play-driver. No, what excited most last season was his jump in scoring. Couturier’s 2.07 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time led the Flyers, and his overall scoring pace would have had him at 50 points in an 82-game season — very solid second-line center territory, at worst. Unfortunately, Couturier’s scoring rates have plummeted. At 5-on-5, Coots is only at 1.25 points per 60 (through Wednesday’s games), not much more than half of the mark he posted last season. And his overall per-game pace (.38 points per game, or 31 points per 82 games) is more reflective of his early NHL career — and this time around, that lack of production can’t be explained away by poor linemates; his most common partner on the ice this year has been Jakub Voracek.
So as always, the question we’re asking about the four-time-reigning-BSH-25-Under-25 champion is this: how good is he, really? It’s important to note that even if the Couturier we’re looking at this year is the real Couturier, that’s still an objectively useful NHL player. A guy who can push play forward while logging big minutes at even strength, kill penalties, and score a little bit is a very good third-line center in today’s NHL. But we don’t want Sean Couturier to just be a very good third-line center, because if the guy who’s been considered by many to be the Flyers’ top young talent for years only has that kind of a ceiling, frankly, it does not say great things about where this team is going. We saw, last year, a version of Sean Couturier that was a high-end second-line center, and arguably even better. The fact that fans may have to re-calibrate their expectations for Couturier again after a disappointing season is disheartening.
For the first four seasons of his NHL career, it was easy to make excuses for Sean Couturier, and it was easy to see the potential that he had. The Flyers, who gave Couturier a six-year contract extension in the summer of 2015, clearly saw it as well. Last year, we actually saw that potential play out on the ice, and it excited fans that the guy the Flyers thought they had in Sean Couturier had finally arrived. And it’s not out of the question that that guy could show up again in the future — offensive numbers are down across the board for the Flyers this year. But right now, the task in front of Sean Couturier isn’t to show that he can be more than a good third-line center. He’s already done that. The task in front of him now is to show that he is more than a good third-line center, that the step forward he took last year was real, and that this current season — and not last season — is an anomaly. He’s under contract for five more years, so whatever he may be, we’ll have plenty more time to find out.
— Kurt R.
No. T-1: Ivan Provorov - D, Philadelphia, NHL
In a season that can be charitably called a disappointment for Flyers fans, there has been one universally-accepted positive development — the emergence of Ivan Provorov. Just six months ago, it was far from a sure thing that Provorov would even make the Flyers out of training camp, and now he’s receiving the most ice time out of any Philadelphia defenseman. It took only about 20 games for Provorov to earn that distinction from head coach Dave Hakstol, and the gap has only widened since. In terms of usage, the Flyers have a 20-year old #1 defenseman, and no one who has watched the team on a nightly basis seems to feel like that’s anything less than the logical decision by the coaching staff.
Provorov has passed the eye test with flying colors. Just like in the WHL, he looks like a defenseman with all of the tools. He can pass accurately (even under pressure), he’s strong on the puck, his lateral skating might be the best on the team already, and he rarely hesitates to challenge opposing forwards when on defense. Corey Sznajder’s manually-tracked data backs up those impressions — with 31 of Philadelphia’s 58 games tracked, Provorov leads the defense in Controlled Exit Percentage, and is second in both Controlled Entry creation percentage (38.33%) and in Controlled Entry denial percentage (56.06%). Microstats paint a picture of a player with no obvious weaknesses in his game, and this is Provorov as a 20-year old. In addition, Provorov’s 5v5 scoring has been top tier for defensemen, as he ranks 30th in the NHL among all blueliners in Points/60 with a 1.05 rate, and fares even better (7th in the NHL) in Primary Points per 60.
There remains one concern, however. Provorov’s play-driving metrics have actually been slightly underwater in his rookie year, which does not match up with the general perception of his play. His score-adjusted Corsi is a mediocre 49.54%, which is -1.59% relative to his teammates. The similar Corsi For% RelTM metric from stats.hockeyanalysis.com tells a similar tale, with Provorov posting a -1.4% rate there as well. Considering Provorov’s obvious skillset, it’s surprising at first glance that the metrics don’t match up with the eye test, until a key piece of context is added to the analysis: Andrew MacDonald. Provorov has spent over half of his 5-on-5 minutes paired with MacDonald, and has posted a 46.66% score-adjusted Corsi alongside him. Away from MacDonald, however, that rate surges to 52.77 percent, providing an easy explanation for Provorov’s underwhelming play-driving metrics.
Still, while it’s likely that MacDonald is the cause of the one chink in Provorov’s armor, it’s impossible to tell for sure, especially because defensemen are very difficult to accurately evaluate. After all, ask most Buffalo fans and they would swear up and down that Rasmus Ristolainen is a first-pair talent, even as he posts play-driving metrics among the league’s worst. Ducks fans (and apparently the coaches, too) likely evaluate Cam Fowler similarly, even though the numbers over a long period of time imply that he’s more of a decent second-pair option. So even considering the circumstances, it’s reasonable to hold off on anointing Provorov as a high-end #1 defenseman until his resume is spotless. But he sure looks like one. Provorov won’t be paired with Andrew MacDonald forever (right?), so eventually we’ll get to see how he performs alongside a true complementary option. And when that happens, I have all the confidence in the world that he’ll flourish.
How We Voted: 5 to 1
|5||Travis Sanheim||Nick Cousins||Travis Sanheim||Oskar Lindblom||Oskar Lindblom||Travis Konecny||Travis Sanheim||Anthony Stolarz||Anthony Stolarz||Travis Sanheim|
|4||Travis Konecny||Shayne Gostisbehere||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny||Travis Sanheim||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny||Travis Konecny|
|3||Shayne Gostisbehere||Ivan Provorov||Shayne Gostisbehere||Shayne Gostisbehere||Shayne Gostisbehere||Sean Couturier||Shayne Gostisbehere||Shayne Gostisbehere||Shayne Gostisbehere||Shayne Gostisbehere|
|2||Sean Couturier||Travis Konecny||Ivan Provorov||Sean Couturier||Ivan Provorov||Shayne Gostisbehere||Sean Couturier||Ivan Provorov||Ivan Provorov||Sean Couturier|
|1||Ivan Provorov||Sean Couturier||Sean Couturier||Ivan Provorov||Sean Couturier||Ivan Provorov||Ivan Provorov||Sean Couturier||Sean Couturier||Ivan Provorov|