Now that the Flyers will be without Matt Niskanen for Game 6, Ivan Provorov must skate alongside a different defensive partner — something that did not happen much during the regular season. During the 2019-20 regular season, just one pair in the entire league — Edmonton’s Ethan Bear and Darnell Nurse — spent more minutes together at 5-on-5 than Provorov and Niskanen. The Provorov-Niskanen duo has been the most consistent thing about the Flyers this season, and it’s been taken away from them ahead of a crucial Game 6. What options do the Flyers have, and what is the butterfly effect of each decision? Let’s explore.
Who ya gonna call?
We’ll start with the least disruptive option — Shayne Gostisbehere. Yes, it’d be a bold decision to put Gostisbehere, a healthy scratch in Games 3, 4, and 5, into a top-pair role. After struggling throughout the season, it’s tough to imagine that the Flyers feel confident in where his game is at right now to reunite this once dominant pair. The potential upside is that they could capture the magic that they had together two seasons, even if just for a night. In 2017-18, the team owned 53 percent of the shots, 55 percent of the expected goals, and 56 percent of the actual goals with the duo on the ice. They were a force.
But that Ghost has gone missing, and while we had a glimpse of him in the round robin, the truth is that he can’t be counted on to show up right now. However, if they were to go forward with the surprising reunion, the second and third pairs could remain as-is, which is of course what makes this the least disruptive option available to the coaching staff.
The future is now, old man
Maybe instead of looking back at the past, we need to be looking into the future. Philippe Myers has been seen as “the guy” to play on the top pair alongside Provorov for some time now. It’s not hard to understand why; he’s a freak in the best of ways. He’s 6’5” and can use his speed to close on you quicker than most, has both puck skills and a physical game, is an intelligent player, and even comes with a mean streak that gets shown every so often. As a right-shot, he really checks all of the boxes. So why would this not be the go-to? Well, the Provorov-Myers partnership is currently an unknown.
They’ve spent just over 70 minutes together over the last two seasons, 56 of which came during the ‘19-20 regular season. The results are mixed — good goal results, poor underlying numbers — but the sample size is nowhere near large enough to pull anything meaningful from it in the first place. By the numbers he’s been the Flyers best defender in the series to date, and has already been facing either the Phillip Danault line or Nick Suzuki line for the majority of his minutes. It wouldn’t be a new challenge for Myers, just a new partner.
In this scenario, one assumes that Justin Braun would move up the middle pair and play with Travis Sanheim, while Gostisbehere — or Mark Friedman — enter and play alongside Robert Hagg.
Trust the vet
Like Niskanen, Braun was brought in during the off-season as a stabilizing force on the back-end. And, largely, he has done just that. While we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him next to Hagg, his most common partner during the season was actually Sanheim, and even though they played tougher minutes, it was during that time that he had been playing his best hockey in a Flyers uniform. It’s clear he can handle tougher competition than he’s seen of late.
However, he’s struggled against the Canadiens during this series, at least to the eye test, and increasing his role may not be the best idea right now. Plus, like Myers, the partnership is relatively unknown, with Provorov and Braun playing just over 100 minutes together. Now, it would keep the Sanheim-Myers pair together, which has arguably out-performed the Provorov pair through five games, and keeping that pair together could be key to finishing off the Canadiens. The third pair would see Hagg with either Gostisbehere or Friedman.
If it weren’t for Braun’s noticeable mishaps in the series, I would call this move the most likely one.
This is an option, I guess
Another option is Braun’s usual partner, Hagg. Only Gostisbehere skated in more of a sheltered role than Hagg during the regular season, and when Dave Hakstol had him playing alongside Provorov during the first half of last season, it was ugly. No.
And most likely...
Finally, we get to Sanheim. Sanheim has been the Flyers’ third defenseman since Game 1, and with Niskanen out, logic tells you to look at the next defenseman on the depth chart — that’s him. Following Hakstol’s firing, one of the first changes made by then-head coach Scott Gordon, and then-assistant coach Rick Wilson, was to increase Sanheim’s role in Philadelphia by putting him next to Provorov, on the team’s top pair. And while the numbers weren’t stellar (46.31% Corsi-For, 48.61% Expected Goals-For) the team itself struggled to push play in the right direction at the time, Provorov was in a slump, and they did out-perform the Provorov-Hagg duo that had been deployed as the top pair early in the season.
The problem with this is that it puts the middle pair in a tough spot. Unless you want two right-handed defensemen to play together, you’re left with either Gostisbehere or Hagg to fill the void left by Sanheim. The Flyers’ two most sheltered defensemen during the regular season aren’t the most ideal options. Given that Gostisbehere-Braun has gone as poorly as it has on multiple occasions, it’s fair to assume that Ghost would be the one to move up with Myers. It’s a pair that showed promise during the regular season, winning the goal, shot, and expected goal battle handily in 114 minutes. Last season the underlying numbers were not as kind to the duo, as they finished with a dreadful Expected Goals-For percentage of 38.47 in 182 minutes. There’s no guarantee it works, especially with how unreliable Ghost has been recently.
Still, Sanheim is the lone available player that has seen some semblance of success in a top-pair role, giving him an edge-up as the most likely candidate to step into Niskanen’s place. He’s been there before and there’s an argument to be made that he’s the team’s second-best defenseman even with Niskanen in the lineup.
While I am extremely high on Sanheim’s abilities, I do wonder if the better choice here is to go with Myers. You run the risk of the chemistry not being there, but the rest of the defense is better balanced. Sanheim-Braun and Hagg-Gostisbehere have played together before, and while the latter pair wasn’t necessarily good, in their time together they did win the goals battle, and almost broke even in Expected Goals. Ideally you’d heavily lean on the top two pairs for the game. Niskanen has had his share of struggles during the post-season as well, and this could be the start of a great thing between Provorov and Myers.
With that being said, I really don’t think that you can go wrong picking Sanheim, and even Braun makes sense if you do not want to break up Sanheim and Myers. Gostisbehere feels like too big of a risk, and Hagg is just not capable of playing that far up the lineup.
Data referenced via of Evolving-Hockey.