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Ivan Provorov’s historically unenviable position

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Ivan Provorov is not having a good season, but could the coaching staff do more in helping him try to fix it?

Calgary Flames v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When the Flyers drafted Ivan Provorov seventh overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, many fans and media members believed the Flyers had potentially found the homegrown number one defenseman this team has never had in its history. They would have a stalwart around whom they could build a defense corps and no longer have to hope and pray that an established franchise defenseman would become available via free agency or trade. Through his first two NHL seasons, things appeared to be trending in that direction. Provorov would gradually be given more responsibility throughout his rookie season, improving with each passing game; and by the end of his sophomore year, Provorov would be tied with Dougie Hamilton as the leading goal scorer among defensemen for the 2017-18 season, leaving very little doubt that he was well on his way to becoming one of the top defensemen in the game and a future Norris Trophy winner.

This season, however, has not been kind to young Ivan. We’ve seen him struggle to handle the puck and maybe worse, and we’ve seen him struggle with his decision-making, a trait for which Provorov had been lauded in his young career to date. So what is going on with Ivan Provorov? While I obviously cannot say I know definitively, I can say I know something that certainly isn’t helping.

(All numbers courtesy of Corsica)

Usage

The idea behind wanting a true number one defenseman is to have someone you can depend upon against the elite players in the game. This of course means there will be many shifts spent in the defensive zone. What Provorov has been up against thus far, however, is nothing short of unreasonable and essentially impossible.

A little over a week ago, Alexander Appleyard of The Athletic tweeted the following about Provorov’s usage to that point in the season:

Updated for this point in the season, there are now 3 defensemen out of 64 who have played at least 500 TOI at 5-on-5 with the same parameters: Josh Manson (ANA), Matt Niskanen (WSH) and Ivan Provorov.

Provorov’s Peers

Player ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
Player ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
Ivan Provorov 42.38 29.81 50.34 48.5 48.33 -2.28 -4.2
Matt Niskanen 40.54 29.57 49.99 44.74 40.51 -6.48 -7.8
Josh Manson 42.16 29.56 50.63 43.81 44.17 -2.35 -0.47

And just as it was at the time of his tweet, none of the now three players with that type of usage have over 50% CF% or 49% xGF%. To put it simply, they’re not driving play or quality shot attempts while they’re on the ice, not even relative to their team.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at how these numbers stack up against Provorov’s first two seasons in the league:

Provorov’s Career Usage

Year ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
Year ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
2016-17 48.31 29.11 50.04 49.22 46.21 -2.01 -4.27
2017-18 47.76 29.33 49.91 49.71 50.9 -0.27 0.27
2018-19 42.38 29.81 50.34 48.5 48.33 -2.28 -4.2

The numbers show he’s progressively seeing more time against quality competition, which is fair. He’s maturing as a player, therefore he’s seeing more time against top competition. Where he’s really getting buried is in xGF% and xGF% Rel, or shot quality. And of those numbers, the largest discrepancy is in ZSR, where he’s seen a nearly 6% drop from his rookie year and over 5% drop from last year. Therefore, where he was given maybe slightly tougher zone starts in his sophomore season compared to his rookie season, he’s seen a rather significant increase in difficulty in his third year compared to his second year.

Now, just how difficult is this type of usage? What does this mean for the outlook of the rest of the season? Again, Alex had the answer there:

Provorov is a special talent, but you’re asking him to do something that not many players in recent history have done and even fewer have actually “succeeded”.

Now that we’ve found a potential issue as to why Provorov has seen a drop in his level of play this year, how can the coaching staff address this issue?

Give Sanheim more responsibility

This article isn’t truly about Travis Sanheim, but it is in a way. It’s been well-documented – both through articulate articles and loud screaming on Twitter – that Sanheim has been very impressive thus far and that he should be receiving more ice time and given more responsibility. Let’s compare Provorov’s usage and shot metrics thus far to that of Travis Sanheim:

Provorov vs. Sanheim 2018-19

Player ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ TOI QoT+ Corsi QoT+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
Player ZSR TOI QoC+ Corsi QoC+ TOI QoT+ Corsi QoT+ adj CF% adj xGF% adj CF% Rel adj xGF% Rel
Provorov 42.38 29.81 50.34 28.53 52.01 48.5 48.33 -2.28 -4.2
Sanheim 56.13 28.14 49.89 26.88 47.54 53.48 58.48 5.14 10.83

I included two more statistics, TOI QoT+ and Corsi QoT+ to demonstrate the quality of teammates Sanheim and Provorov are playing with while on the ice. The numbers line up fairly well with logic; Sanheim is being used as a bottom pair defenseman and is therefore mostly playing with bottom 6 players, the opposite being true for Provorov. And with respect to their respective ZSR statistics, again, a sheltered 3rd pair defenseman labeled as an “offensive defenseman” is going to see more offensive zone starts relative to the number one defenseman on the team. It’s not that these numbers are widely skewed compared to the norm, as I don’t believe that to be the case (though admittedly I did not do the research on that). However, I do think given how well Sanheim has played to date, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to give some of those defensive zone starts against top 6 talent to the former 1st round pick and see how he fares. Worst case scenario, he struggles, and you return him to his previous usage.

Conclusion

A lot is expected of you as a number one defenseman in the NHL, particularly one who is thought to have as much potential as Ivan Provorov. There are likely several reasons as to why Provorov has struggled thus far. There have been whispers or conspiracies of him using a shorter stick this season. Some have wondered if he has fully recovered from the shoulder injury he sustained in the playoffs or if he’s fighting through a different injury altogether. It’s likely a combination of a myriad of things. But one thing we can say – and something that can be immediately addressed – is that his current usage has historically shown to be a near impossible endeavor in which to succeed.