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As Provorov enters the rumor mill, the Flyers’ failures with defensemen come into focus

Provorov continues a long line of organizational missteps on the blue line.

Arizona Coyotes v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The summer after I graduated high school I delivered pizza. It is still the best job I’ve ever had.

I could sleep into the afternoon, stroll in right in before the dinner rush, drive around for a couple hours listening to WMMR, and, thanks to tips, make more than minimum wage. What a summer.

But I have to make this clear – I was terrible at this job. I would regularly forget where I was going and show up late with orders. If you included a soda, I hope you weren’t that thirsty. And while the shop urged me to use a magnetic car top, I had a selectively shaky memory in an effort to protect my mom’s Subaru Legacy.

I tried to run it back the following summer but eventually my manager had a selectively shaky memory and forgot to include me on an updated schedule.

I deserved that.

But I remember after one of my last shifts learning that the Flyers traded for Chris Pronger. I couldn’t believe it. I told whoever I could, which included a Red Wings fan who also worked at the pizzeria. He kind of laughed and said something like, “typical Flyers, always trading for a guy past his prime.”

After that month I never saw him again, but I still remember him just because he probably gave the worst take I’ve ever heard.

How bad was his Pronger take? Well, it’s been more than 11 years since his last game in Orange and Black and the Flyers are still trying to replace him.

Ivan Provorov’s name started appearing in trade rumors this week. As a 23-year-old, he was the best defenseman on the league’s hottest team when Covid hit. How did we get to this point?

It really does start with Pronger.

Paul Holmgren needed the GPS that I, too, was missing. After Pronger’s career-ending eye injury, Holmgren tried to replace his physicality any way he could. The team traded for Pavel Kubina and Nick Grossmann before the deadline. That summer he traded for Luke Schenn, hoping a once-coveted prospect could rediscover some of the reasons he had promise. He didn’t. They tried drafting a guy who looked like Pronger, Sam Morin. That same summer they threw money at free agency’s biggest fish, Mark Streit, who was a solid role player but miscast as a difference maker in Philadelphia. The next year Holmgren added Andrew MacDonald. The less I write the better.

In about two years, Holmgren made aggressive plays at six defensemen, tying up cap space and burning through assets. When he traded for Pronger in 2009, he got two wins from a Cup. He thought he still had a comparable core and kept trying every possible solution to fill the missing Pronger-sized puzzle piece. For as much attention as the Ilya Bryzgalov signing received, this is as much of a reason as any for Holmgren’s downfall. He tried every path and couldn’t find the destination.

Ron Hextall took over and played the long game, taking a pair of defensemen with his top picks in 2014 and 2015, Travis Sanheim and Provorov, respectively. Provorov, the seventh pick of the 2015 draft, was viewed as the crown jewel.

While Holmgren went after every veteran defenseman he could get his hands on, Hextall tried to clean up the cap. Without any big-time trades or signings, the defense group atrophied to the point that when Provorov made the big club a year after he was drafted, he led the team in minutes and has been the de facto No. 1 ever since.

While I would leave behind the sodas on my deliveries, Hextall left Provorov without any reliable veterans. He was immediately thrown to the wolves. I’m not sure if Provorov would have developed differently if he had less responsibility early in his career. Provorov is now a seven-year veteran. He has proven to be a solid, if not spectacular blue liner. He was drafted to finally end the search for a franchise defenseman. This may be the benefit of hindsight and Provorov would have developed this way regardless, but it does not appear Hextall brought a team culture conducive to developing young defensemen in the NHL.

In Elliotte Friedman’s report, as well as every Flyers Twitter back alley one can find, you’ll hear that Provorov isn’t happy, his teammates aren’t really happy, and everyone is ready to move on. Provorov was supposed to be the Flyers’ answer on defense. In his mind, he provided big minutes and played that top role on some winning teams. And while I tried to protect my mom’s Legacy, Chuck Fletcher was hired to protect the Flyers’ legacy. He was hired to reestablish a culture that went for it and spent to the cap, bias for action, blah blah blah. While he delivered Matt Niskanen his first offseason, he could never replace him. Whether it was Ryan Ellis or Tony DeAngelo, no one stuck and Provorov still doesn’t have a steady partner while this roster is capped out and outside contention. This relationship feels like it’s nearing an end in part because of Fletcher’s inadequacies in filling out this roster.

Holmgren, Hextall, Fletcher, and, uh, I were all fired or will be fired for having our own vision for our job and failing.

The Flyers have been trying to find the centerpiece to their defense corps for more than a decade. Holmgren tried to acquire that player but failed. Hextall tried to draft him, but never provided the infrastructure to develop. Fletcher saw glimpses of that talent in Provorov, but failed in finding the right pieces around him for it to flourish.

With Provorov’s name swirling in rumors, it feels like we are conceding Provorov is not the No. 1 this team has needed and the search will continue. Provorov will leave Philadelphia a disappointment, but the organization failed him.

Three separate regimes have provided cautionary tales. There may be an element of randomness to acquiring solid defensemen, but seeing teams like the Nashville Predators constantly cycle through a loaded pipeline of blue liners makes it seem like organizational philosophy is paramount.

It seems that if and when Fletcher is replaced, the Flyers will be heading into a rebuilding period. That will probably preclude them from taking Holmgren’s approach, but in developing a top-pair defenseman, this team will need to provide a support system to make the most of that guy’s talent, whoever it may be. This sounds obvious. I don’t expect to be remembered for this take in 14 years. But the Flyers failed at doing so and got us to this point.