Ivan Provorov is in his fourth season with the Flyers. It feels like 14. Of course it feels like 14. Since he entered the lineup in the fall of 2016, Provorov has not missed a game. The Flyers have played 308 games. He has played 308 games. He has spent nearly 7,400 minutes on the ice. He is 23. It feels like he ought to be 33. Of course it does.
But he is not 33, and though it should be an obvious thing to remember, sometimes a reminder is worthwhile and necessary. He is 23, and so is Travis Sanheim, and so is Phil Myers. And Robert Hagg is just 25. And Shayne Gostisbehere, for all his peaks and valleys and stick-heaving over the last five years and last five days, is just 26.
It is worthwhile and necessary to remember all of these players’ ages, because the rebuilding plan that former general manager Ron Hextall started and that Chuck Fletcher is trying to advance into its next phase was predicated, in large part, on the Flyers’ accumulating as many gifted defensemen as they could. And here they are, a potential playoff team, and five of the seven defensemen on the roster are homegrown and still in their mid-20s.
This is a good thing. This is an encouraging thing. But it also probably will require more patience before anyone begins regarding the Flyers as anything but a team for which a Stanley Cup run this season would be a wild and welcome surprise. That’s not a criticism of any of them. That’s merely an acknowledgment of their youth and the value, come the postseason, of having defensemen who combine experience and talent in more balanced proportions.
Consider the recent teams to win the Stanley Cup and the ages of their top defensemen:
The 2019 Blues: Alex Pietrangelo, 29.
The 2018 Capitals: John Carlson, 28.
The 2017 Penguins: Kris Letang, 29, and Justin Schultz, 26.
The 2016 Penguins: Letang, 28.
The 2015 Blackhawks: Duncan Keith, 31, and Brent Seabrook, 29.
The 2014 Kings: Drew Doughty, 25.
The 2013 Blackhawks: Keith, 29, and Seabrook, 27.
The 2012 Kings: Doughty, 23.
You have to go back eight years to find a Cup-winning team whose clear-cut No. 1 defenseman was as young as Provorov, the Flyers’ clear-cut No. 1 defenseman, is now. Does that mean the Flyers can’t make a postseason charge this spring, assuming they qualify? No, but the available evidence suggests that their incline will be steeper than it will be next season or the season after that. When you have at least one defenseman who is that good, that smart, that skilled and tested, it can cover up for so many other weaknesses and sins.
These defensemen are gifted, and the Flyers’ 4-1 victory over the Panthers on Monday was the latest indication: Provorov and Sanheim scored goals, and together, they logged nearly 49 minutes of ice time — Provorov as half of the team’s No. 1 pairing with Matt Niskanen, Sanheim with Myers.
Provorov’s goal was particularly impressive. Holding the puck at the left point midway through the first period, he noticed that the Florida player in front of him, Aleksander Barkov, had no stick. So Provorov waited, gliding to his right and dragging the puck into the slot for a clearer lane to the net before ripping a wrist shot over Sergei Bobrovsky’s glove hand.
It took him time, he said, to understand fully that he couldn’t play in the NHL as he had played in junior, that he couldn’t do everything singlehandedly, couldn’t skate faster than every other player, couldn’t carry the puck and play keep-away indefinitely like he could when his physical traits separated him from everyone else on the ice.
Simpler and smarter were usually better. In 56 games this season, he already has more goals (10) and points (27) than he had all of last season (seven goals, 26 points). He was a minus-16 then. He’s a plus-4 now. He seems a different player this season under coach Alain Vigneault, surer with the puck and surer of himself than he was under Dave Hakstol and Scott Gordon.
“Overall, our team is playing better,” he said. “We have the puck a lot more than last year, and that’s where all the scoring chances and opportunities and points come. You don’t defend the whole time. You don’t make as many mistakes. It’s a different system that allows us to play tighter, have the puck, get the puck back more.”
For the second straight game, the Flyers’ overall defensive play was better for having Hagg in the lineup. Sanheim’s goal was born of a quick decision, after he saw four Panthers players were caught up ice, to join a Flyers counterattack, surge to the front of the Florida net, and ram home a loose puck. “Sometimes, you’re going to make the wrong read,” he said, “but for the most part, I know when to go.” Myers had a team-high five shots on goal and delivered two hits.
“Both those young men are big, tall, can reach, can skate,” Vigneault said of Sanheim and Myers. “They were a work in progress, but there’s a lot to work with there. It’s our job and their job to maximize it.” That’s the mission, for all of them. It requires only time.