The Perpetually Miscast Ivan Provorov
Ivan Provorov is a perplexing hockey player. He’s sort of a Rorschach test among defensemen. You can look at him and see something completely different, depending on what you bring to it.
He has the frame and mobility to be an exceptional defensive defenseman, but his constant bleeding of on-ice goals and expected goals against would suggest he’s anything but.
He has the mobility and puck skills to be a transition monster, and any tracked data indicates that he enters the offensive zone with power and skill.
He has the shooting ability–and occasionally flashes the passing touch–to be a highly valuable offensive defenseman.
His point totals don’t scream “offensive defenseman”
His possession numbers don’t yell “defensive defenseman”
Every coach who lays eyes on him loves him, and wants to run him out for thirty minutes regardless of the numerous errors he makes.
Have I painted the picture yet? Have I successfully conveyed just how damn confounding that Provorov is? It’s no wonder that opinions on him vary so widely.
Many people have him shipped in the offseason anyway, and that may just happen. I, myself, consider it likely. But there are others who don’t feel so certain.
In his piece, DiMarco says that the Flyers are reluctant to move Provorov. For one, they don’t think they’ll be getting proper value. And for two, they’re afraid of the vacuum that will be left behind when he isn’t out there to eat the voluminous, defensive-oriented minutes that he does.
On the surface, that’s a fair argument. You don’t want to just send some unqualified vagabond in to eat the minutes that Provorov has already proven capable of eating.
But that’s why I want to look a little deeper. Is Ivan Provorov capable of eating the minutes? Has he proven to be that guy? After his point totals in 2018-19, and his sterling possession numbers in 19-20, everyone was assuming that–yes–he was proven.
Since then, he’s had 3 years where he’s largely produced awful possession numbers and uninspiring point totals. A lot of people, therefore, would say: No. He’s not capable.
Provorov’s supporters would argue that the team is terrible, and therefore producing good possession numbers is nearly impossible. Since he’s already proven capable of doing it on a good team, we should just hang on to him until that good team manifests again and he can be the 19-20 guy once more.
I’m not about to tell either side that they make no sense. The truth is: they are both basing their opinions on very real factors. Instead, I want to go a step deeper. I want to talk about why the team has been so bad.
Here’s a simple truth: Ivan Provorov plays nearly 25 minutes a night, depending on the season. He plays largely against the best players on the ice. He has an outsized influence on just how good the team is. Because, him winning is minutes would make it a downhill slope into the Flyers winning games.
Inversely, if Provorov is losing his 25 minutes a night, it’s hard for the lower portions of the lineup to compensate for a team being totally destroyed at the top of the lineup.
Stars matter a lot in this sport, even if it isn’t quite NBA levels of “get Lebron and watch him cook.”
I shouldn’t have to spend too much time convincing you that Provorov has largely lost his minutes, especially since the 20-21 season.
Per Natural Stat Trick, he had a 46.35% expected goal share in 2021-2022 at 5v5.
He had a 44% actual goal share at 5v5 in 2021-2022.
In 2022-2023, he has a 45.59% expected goal share at 5v5. And that’s paired with a 43.64% actual goal share.
While a lot of people have painted this as some bounceback season, the truth is he’s largely been the same. Or arguably worse. His season-long numbers are being significantly swayed by playing so many minutes with Cam York, who has been the team’s best playdriving defenseman in both actual and expected goals. This was true last year and true this year.
But why is Provorov playing better with York than he plays with everyone else? Is it because York is just that awesome, and he’s strapping ole Provy in the backpack?
Well, I–for one–think York is extremely awesome. But I actually think the answer rests a bit deeper than that. In fact, I think there’s a common thread that connects Provorov’s relative success with York to his 19-20 success with Mat Niskanen.
Niskanen and York have a few key things in common as players.
For one, they’re both extremely adept at breaking the pucks out of the defensive zone even when ungodly pressure is bearing down on them. They’re good at feathering pucks 5 to 10 feet to the next player, so they can make a play even when they’re getting crunched into the boards.
These subtle plays they make don’t catch a lot of eyes. If you know where to look, they’re extremely easy to find. But in general, a lot of “eye test” savants will completely overlook this facet of the game. Good or bad.
That happens to be Provorov’s greatest Achilles heel as a player. He’s not good under pressure in the defensive zone. He bites off way more than he can chew on breakouts, and that leads to a lot of failed breakouts. That extends possession time for the other team. It leads to additional chances against. And those chances lead to goals against.
In space, Provorov is quite dynamic. His combination of mobility and size makes him one hell of a freight train when he gets the legs churning. And he can handle the puck, too. He can deke out defenders and make cuts when he has the time and space to plan his routes.
For this reason, he’s one hell of a 3v3 player. He thrives in space.
Between the years 2018-19 and 20-21, Provorov had a 60% actual goal share at 3v3 with 66 minutes of time logged there. That was 2nd in the entire NHL among players with that kind of workload, ranking over dynamic players like Aleksander Barkov and Patrick Kane.
It’s when space is limited and things become cramped that Provorov can–and often does–run into trouble. Whether it be the poise to make better decisions under duress or the feet to slip in and out of cramped spaces, Provorov just doesn’t excel in those areas of the game.
He’s big, but he’s not Victor Hedman. He isn’t going to be able to consistently wall players of and make space for himself whenever he wants. Sometimes, he’s gotta have the fluidity to make a play when space isn’t there.
And he doesn’t.
But that’s okay.
With a partner who does have those qualities, he can find himself in plenty more advantageous situations. That’s why Provorov’s play depends so much on his partner.
One of the common defaults to explain this phenomenon is: “He’s not an elite #1, but he’s a strong #2.”
Well, it’s true that he isn’t an elite #1. That’s mainly because he has such a weakness in his game that he needs a strong partner to cover it up. However, it’s not that he needs an elite #1 to succeed.
Mat Niskanen was probably a serviceable #1 defenseman, but he was hardly a Victor Hedman. It didn’t matter. He still gave Provorov what he needed.
I think it’s within York’s capabilities to be a #1 defenseman, but he isn’t there yet. It doesn’t matter. He gives Provorov what he needs.
If you can surround Provorov with the right infrastructure that compensates for his great flaw, then you can reap the benefits of his strengths on a top-pairing.
But what kind of top-pairing?
Is it really defensively oriented minutes that Provorov excels at eating?
My frank answer to this question is: God, no.
The dirty little secret of Ivan Provorov is that he’s not very good at in-zone defending. I know, everyone was told he’s above average at it. And it’s not like he’s Tony DeAngelo out there, but I still think he lands much closer to average in this regard.
I made a little thread last night which one might consider the genesis of this article. In it, I detailed the honestly baffling sort of mistakes Provorov would make in defensive coverages.
In one case, he sags off the guy in the netfront to cover a guy hanging out in the Leon Draisaitl spot. That may be justifiable if he was playing Leon Draisaitl, but he was not. He was playing the Wild. The most dangerous outlet was the netfront player. Sure enough, it’s responsible for a deflection goal.
In a second case, he turns his back to Matt Boldy (for reasons???) and screens Carter Hart on a rebound opportunity. Boldy makes a play to tuck it five-hole (on both Provorov and Hart!), but really, he didn’t give Hart a chance.
And these aren’t isolated incidents either. Provorov’s on-ice save percentage has always been bad.
His career high on-ice save percentage is an acceptable .895. That happened in 2016-17.
His career low on-ice save percentage is an abysmal .881, which occured in 20-21. Admittedly, Hart himself had a role there.
Next up on the low list? Hs 2022-23 on-ice save percentage of .884.
This is while Carter Hart is sporting a .907 save percentage. Just think about that.
To compare him to another defenseman in the league who eats a heavy helping of defensive minutes? Here’s the on-ice save percentage numbers of Devon Toews.
His career high came with the Islanders in 18-19, when he sported a .936. Admittedly, that’s unsustainable.
His career low save percentage came in 20-21 with the Avalanche, when he had a .901 save percentage.
To put that in perspective, Toews has never had an on-ice save percentage under .900. Provorov has never had an on-ice save percentage of .900 or better.
He’s just not good at defensive coverage. He consistently makes his goalies worse, because he forces them to face egregious shots. Year by year, your save percentage can fluctuate with luck. But when it’s bad for 7 years, it’s probably just… bad for a reason.
If that doesn’t work for you, let’s compare him to Travis Sanheim. He plays on the same team as Provorov, and has seen his minutes steadily increase to such a point where he generally plays almost as much as Provorov does. The environments are remarkably similar.
Sanheim’s career best on-ice save percentage is a .907, which happened in 17-18. His career low, outside of 20-21 (where Hart himself helped), is an .885 in 19-20.
In 20-23, Sanheim has a .902 save percentage.
It’s consistently higher than Provorov, because he botches less defensive assignments and gives his goalies a chance more often. It’s an anomaly in a small sample size. But when it happens for long enough, it’s a trend.
So, what do the Flyers have in Ivan Provorov?
They have a defenseman who can log heavy 5 on 5 minutes if he’s paired with a partner that can both handle tougher defensive coverages and move the puck in tight spaces.
In situations where they have someone who can move the puck out of tight spaces but also probably shouldn’t be handling tough defensive coverages, he’s a floater of a defenseman. Someone who can provide an offensive punch in second pair minutes, but more than your average second pair plays.
He’s an offensively oriented top-4 defenseman.
And any team who acquires Provorov should know that.
If the Flyers are determined to keep Provorov, then it should be as an offensively inclined 2LD.
But, should they keep Provorov?
If he isn’t here to “eat defensively oriented minutes,” then what is he really for? If it’s an offensively inclined 2LD you want, then Travis Sanheim is perfectly capable of filling that role. And if York is already compensating for Provorov’s defining flaw as a 1RD, then surely he can survive being 1LD with a partner that’s geared towards his strength.
Sanheim’s contract is significantly harder to move than Provorov anyway.
If Provorov isn’t the minutes-munching Mattias Ekholm he’s been cast as, then what is the point of him? We can talk about Torts liking him, because his stoic attitude and on-ice swagger is good for the culture.
But, we’re really going to keep a $7M player in a miscast role because we like how he contributes to the culture? Good lord, we pay Scott Laughton half of that and he serves the same purpose.
We’re going to keep Travis Konecny–almost certainly–and he already provides the same cultural impact as Provorov while also being in a proper enough role.
The future of the Flyers blue line is Cam York.
Unless we draft and develop some can’t-miss Rasmus Dahlin level Norris blueliner who plays the left side, then York will almost surely feature on the top-pair of relevant Flyers teams.
We can assume his development will go majorly south and he’ll massively regress, but I would caution against that. After all, the central point of this piece is that Ivan Provorov never regressed in the ways people claimed he did. He’s always been the exact same player.
It’s just about fitting that player into the right environment.
York has proven much more environment-resistant than Provorov, so it’s only fair to expect him to rise to even greater heights as he gains both experience and an improved working environment.
So, if York is the future–which I am adamant that he is–then the discussion, in my view, should be how do we best equip York?
York’s long-term partner should be a right handed defenseman, for one thing. He should get to play his natural side, instead of having to move over to cover for the weaknesses of a player that the team wouldn’t dare pay his salary at this stage.
And his partner should be someone who can compliment him. It’s much easier to find, too. They don’t need to be exceptional puck movers under pressure. In fact, someone who doesn’t move the puck as agressively through space as Provorov would be ideal.
The number 1 area of development for York is his assertiveness on the ice. In truth, he could stand to learn from Provorov here. But it’s going to be difficult for him to hone that aggression if a lion’s share of the reps moving the puck through space–where most of the aggressive plays are made–are given to Provorov.
It’s going to lock him into developmental stasis. If anything, the Flyers would be well suited to finding their own version of Mattias Ekholm. A defensively oriented defenseman who can move the puck when he must, especially under duress, but someone who isn’t going to take those reps of moving the puck through space.
A search for that person can be conducted later, as soon as we’ve either moved Ivan Provorov. Or, at the very least, slotted him correctly into a proper role that accounts for his strengths and weaknesses as a player.