The Flyers are going to be good this coming season, we think. But how good? A legit contender? The same team they were last year? A bubble team? Worse? Every team faces some questions that will determine just how good they’re going to be, and we’ll be looking at 10 key ones between now and puck drop on January 13.
Almost two years ago, in Ivan Provorov’s segment of the Winter 2019 update to our Top 25 Under 25, I had the following to say as I ranked the Flyers’ top defenseman at No. 1 in the rankings even as he was suffering through his worst season as a professional:
Provorov’s ascendance was maybe the biggest reason the Flyers turned their 2017-18 season around, and his fall off the face of the earth this season is maybe the biggest reason why this team was out of the playoff race by the new year — certainly not to be confused as the only reason, but it very well might be the biggest. Maybe that’s why I put him down at #1 at the end of the day: because as much as anyone here, it seems like if this team is going to turn into a legitimate Cup contender within the next few years, it’s going to be because Ivan Provorov is the guy we think he can be. More than Carter Hart, more than Nolan Patrick, more than Shayne Gostisbehere — he’s gotta be the guy. And we know he can be that guy because we’ve seen it. Getting him right is the team’s biggest homework assignment going forward.
The idea that “as (insert player name here) goes, the team goes” is one that is both technically true most of the time that it’s stated and also a bit obvious. We’ve discussed this in this space before — when good things happen, your team tends to do well. Not exactly rocket science, that. But it feels like these kinds of things tend to be true more often in a micro sense than a macro, big-picture one. Teams that are good and doing well can have players playing badly, and bad teams can have good players on them that are playing well.
That in mind, since Ivan Provorov’s arrival to the NHL prior to the 2016-17 season, it’s hard to think of a player whose individual path of successes and failures has more closely tracked towards the Flyers’ than his. Think about how things have gone for the Flyers’ top defenseman, who is yet to miss a game in his four-season career, and how they’ve gone for the Flyers at the same time:
- In 2016-17, Provorov made the team out of camp, immediately took on a significant role, and was the Flyers’ number-one defenseman (by role and ice time, at least) by the time we hit Thanksgiving. He looked strong out the gate, and the Flyers’ season got out to a pretty solid start with it. Then, as the season went on, he seemed to hit something of a rookie wall (being paired with Andrew MacDonald probably didn’t help matters), and as that happened, the Flyers faded and comfortably missed the playoffs.
- In 2017-18, Provorov’s first couple of months looked a lot like the way he ended the previous season — not bad, but with some mistakes here and there. And at the same time, the Flyers’ season didn’t get out to a great start. Then, on that fateful game on December 23 in Columbus, Provorov was moved to a pairing with Shayne Gostisbehere. His season took off, and so did the Flyers’. Provorov enjoyed the best half-season of his career to date, he finished the regular season tied for the league lead in goals by a defenseman, and the Flyers rallied from that 10-game losing streak to grab a playoff spot.
- 2018-19 was Provorov’s most tumultuous season as an NHLer. While the season wasn’t an outright disaster, Provorov was erratic and inconsistent, frequently making head-scratching errors and looking less like the offensive force he did the previous year. And the team as a whole? Fired its general manager and head coach and never really competed for anything important.
- And then came 2019-20, Provorov’s best season as a Flyer. Playing alongside Matt Niskanen for most of the season, Provorov was consistently excellent, taking on his usual difficult workload while getting the better of those minutes more often than not. All the while, the Flyers had their best regular season in nearly a decade and won their first playoff series in about as long.
Now, surely, one can ask questions about what direction the causation works in here. Those teams’ bottom-line results were similarly tied to other factors — to name a few: the team’s forward depth, goaltending, coaching — and as the guy who’s on the ice more than any other skater most nights, one could reasonably guess that the team is “contributing” to Provorov’s successes and failures as much as he is to theirs.
Yet there’s something to be said about a number-one defenseman setting the tone for the team, and really being the guy that bears the standard for what’s going on out there. Last season, for a full season for the first time in his four-year career, Provorov was the dude the Flyers thought they were getting when Ron Hextall took him seventh overall in 2015. And in this coming season, which begins on the day Provorov celebrates his 24th birthday, he has his chance to show for good that he is, in fact, that dude.
The six-year, $40.5 million contract that the Flyers gave Provorov prior to the 2019-20 season was something of a gamble at the time. As we’ve mentioned already, the Flyers gave Provorov that deal following his rockiest season as a pro. That’s not to say Provorov hadn’t already reached some fairly high highs during his three NHL seasons, and a guy who eats the kinds of minutes he does figured to be in line for some real money. But if the Provorov we’d seen in the first three seasons was the best version we’d get going forward, it would’ve been an overpay. That contract was a bet on what Provorov was going to continue to become.
Just one year later, that contract looks at worst reasonable and at best a steal. And Provorov’s breakthrough coming hand-in-hand with the Flyers’ breakthrough as a team really hammers home the point that while having that number-one defenseman who can play big minutes and in all situations may not be an unequivocal prerequisite for a team to be a contender, it sure makes things easier.
The question for the Flyers, then, is straightforward: Is the Ivan Provorov that we all saw last season — the one who’s a number-one defenseman not just in nominal role but also in performance — the Ivan Provorov the Flyers can expect to get going forward?
As such, trying to figure why last season was Provorov’s best is a big question the Flyers need to know the answer to. Some of it may just be natural progression; at 23, Provorov is entering what is probably the prime of his NHL career, and he crossed the 300-game mark last season. That he was a better and more consistent player last year than he was when he was 19 shouldn’t be a surprise, even if it wasn’t true the year prior. But there were other factors at play last year that helped Provorov, and the Flyers need to determine if they either don’t need those any more or have properly accounted for them this year.
In particular, there’s the question of his defensive partner. Few recountings of Provorov’s 2019-20 successes can take place without mention of one Matt Niskanen, far and away Provorov’s most frequent defensive partner. Niskanen seemed to check the key boxes last season for what the Flyers needed next to Provorov — a versatile, right-shot defenseman who, when necessary, can either cover for his partner, take the reins, or take a back seat to Provorov.
Niskanen is now gone, and there’s still no obvious replacement on that right side of Provorov. Justin Braun fills some of those needs as a competent defender, but he is nothing resembling a puck-mover at this point. Phil Myers brings some exciting upside, but he still seems like he makes enough mistakes that you may not want him that high up in the lineup just yet. And every other realistic option would be playing on their off-side, and with the arguable exception of Travis Sanheim, most of those options have not shown anything in the recent past that would sugges they’re ready for top-pair minutes. (Unless Shayne Gostisbehere walks out of a time machine from 2018 and into the Wells Fargo Center, that is.)
Which brings the question, then, back to Provorov. He’s about to be entering his fifth season in the league. Can he survive and even thrive in the huge role he’s been placed in with a less-than-perfect fit as his partner? Do the Flyers believe that he can be the guy he was last year without a Niskanen-type attached to him at the hip? The early guess here is that they do; the team had some cap space and some external options available this summer, and only ended up signing Erik Gustafsson to a one-year deal. That’s probably not a move for a top-pair right-shot defenseman, so is the answer to “who’s the top-pair right-side defenseman” just “whoever we want to play with Ivan”?
In the end, this is Ivan Provorov’s defense now. Unofficially, it has been since about two months into his NHL career. But his two most successful stretches as an NHLer have often been remembered as great pairings — him with Gostisbehere in 2018, and him with Niskanen last season — rather than transcendent individual extended performances by him. If the Flyers have a partner in mind that’s going to help Provorov recreate what he did last year? Awesome. If they don’t? They better hope he’s ready to do it themselves.
Because as Provorov goes, the Flyers tend to.