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Flyers young star Ivan Provorov draws comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom and other NHL greats

At just 20 years old, Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov is logging more than 26 minutes per game, and his style is being compared to all-time NHL great Nicklas Lidstrom.

Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov skates with the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov skates with the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYong Kim/Staff Photographer

The fawning young reporter had her list of questions, volleys for a player that, despite his age, already have been returned at least 100 times. What does Ivan Provorov think is the key to his success? What helped him get to where he is? What are his goals?

It all boiled down to this last one: How could someone so young play so old, so void of the mistakes that mark a player's age more accurately than the stubble on his face.

"You don't have to be young to make mistakes," the Flyers' 20-year-old defenseman answered, a controlled smile seeping across his often-stoic face. "And it doesn't mean if you are young that you are going to make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. It's just about how much you can limit those mistakes. And learn from them."

Even the answer, of course, suggests a mind much older than Provorov's. And in a way, it is. From the first time he put on hockey equipment at age 5, through the difficult decision to leave his home and family back in Yuroslavl, Russia, at age 13 in order to acclimate to the North American style of hockey, Provorov's single-minded pursuit of a childhood dream required both an isolation and assimilation that washed over any semblance of normal adolescence, resulting in a man-teen whose worth is measured as much by whom he plays against and how much he plays than in any tangible statistic on the score sheet.

"He was definitely always standing out among the other kids even when we were growing up," said Nikita Pavlychev, a hometown friend who followed him to North America and now plays at Penn State. "He was figuring things out on the ice that no one else was even then."

The eye test

After a rookie season in which he played all 82 games and amassed 30 points, Provorov this season is on a pace that puts him marginally ahead of that sum, but hardly in the realm of typical Norris Trophy candidates. His name rarely makes it onto that night's list of three stars, and his plus-2 rating is a ways away from the league leaders among defenseman, or even teammate Robert Hagg's team-leading plus-14 after Wednesday's win over Detroit.

Ah, but the eye test. Hagg doesn't get the other team's best line every night, as Provorov and his defense mate Andrew MacDonald do. Hagg is averaging in the high teens in ice time, Provorov's eye-popping near-26 minutes each night — more than four minutes higher than the 31-year-old MacDonald, who is second on the team.

"If you went to a game when Nicklas Lidstrom was younger, to the naked eye you might not have noticed all the things he did," said Keith Jones, the former NHL player now serving as an analyst. "And that's Provorov, too. There's a lot of games where he played a first star type of game but wouldn't be noticed. There's a subtlety to what he does."

Case in point: Provorov is 13th in the Flyers Toyota Cup standings with 2 third star points. Travis Konecny, Brandon Manning, even rookie Travis Sanheim have registered more.

A Hall of Famer, Lidstrom is, at this point, a reference point only. Provorov watched a lot of NHL as a child — "as many games as I could," he said — but Lidstrom's Detroit Red Wings teams of the 1990s were of special interest. They had the Russian Five of course – Igor LarionovVyacheslav Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov up front, Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov on defense. But they also had this young Swedish defenseman who could affect a game on both ends of the ice, who could shut down opponent's top lines while at the same time creating offense.

Like Provorov, people marveled at the maturity of Lidstrom's game right from the start. He arrived in Detroit at age 21, after three seasons in the Swedish Elite League. His numbers, even now, seem concocted, a player who averaged over 50 points a season and better than a plus-20 his entire 22-season career, a player who got the other team's toughest line every game, who, like Provorov, averaged well over 25 minutes per game.

In 2002-03, amid the third of his seven Norris Trophy seasons, Lidstrom averaged 29:20 of ice time per game.

"I watched that guy for 20 years," said Mark Howe, himself a Hall of Fame defenseman. "And he's as good as anyone I've ever seen."

‘Big, big role’

Howe was nearing the end of his career when he joined the Red Wings for the 1992-93 season. A player with a similar skill set and intellectual m.o. in his prime, Howe was acquired by Detroit in part to influence the Wings' young core. Now a Detroit scout, he has spent a good amount of time in the Flyers' press box over Provorov's two years as a pro.

"What is he, 20 years old?" said Howe of the second-year defenseman. "What's most impressive with what he does: He's playing against the best players every night and he's done that almost from the start. The first six weeks last year there was a little adjustment period and then he's been slotted into that big, big role. And he's done just fine with it."

"It's amazing some of the things he's able to do at that young of an age," said his coach, Dave Hakstol, one day this fall. "Yet that's the way he's wired."

It's a good use of the cliché, a one-word summary for his journey thus far. The oldest of Venera and Vladimir Provorov's three children, Provorov had an  early interest in the game that was nurtured and amplified by his father's own passion. Venera is a physician, Vladimir a successful businessman, both with a work ethic the son absorbed early in life.

He was as good a student as he was a player, recalled Penn State's Pavlychev, who was on his very first team at age 5. But he was hardly some robotic creature. Despite a good command of the English language and exposure to media on this continent, Provorov's answers are careful and usually short. But watch him with a visiting Russian reporter after a recent game at the Wells Fargo Center, and there is a stream of smiles, even laughter.

"When you hang out with him, you know he's 20," said Nolan Patrick, who played with him in Juniors. "He still has fun. It's just that, when he gets to the rink, he's all business."

A 6-foot-7 sophomore forward on the Nittany Lions who was selected by the Penguins in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, Pavlychev said he owes a chunk of his success so far on his trailblazing friend. After playing in tournaments for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Knights the previous spring, Provorov, with his father's help, recruited Pavlychev and another Yuroslavl teammate, Denis Smirnov, to join him there for a full season. There, they were told, the opportunities to reach the NHL would multiply.

Told of Pavlychev's comments, Provorov disputed them — with a joke. "I didn't raise them," he said. "I just helped them as a friend. They put in a lot of the work themselves. They got to Penn State by playing good hockey.

"You have to sacrifice sometimes to reach your goals. That's what I did. That's what they did too."

Pavlychev, who has 10 points in 12 games for Penn State this season, disagrees. "I tell you what," he said. "I had no idea college hockey existed."

Skating past college

College was the original idea for Provorov as well, but he played himself right out of that scenario and into Canada's Major Junior Leagues — specifically the Brandon Wheat Kings. Juniors offered many more games than college hockey did, many more opportunities to familiarize with the intricacies to playing defense on the smaller rinks that mimicked those in the NHL.

In two seasons there, Provorov averaged more than a point a game. He did the same for Russia during two World Junior Championships after his final season with the Wheat Kings. Plenty of highlights from that era are still available on Youtube, including a Bobby Orr-like end-to-end rush during his first season.

"That wasn't the only time he did it," said Patrick, who was on the ice for the goal. "He was making moves around guys more than our forwards would."

That offense has yet to appear over 116 NHL games. As Patrick said, 24 points is not bad for a rookie defenseman, and 14 points playing a heavy game every night this season isn't either. "But I still think he has much more offensively," said the Flyers rookie centerman.

By the time he finished his second NHL season, Lidstrom had amassed 105 points. He was also 23 by then, having spent his first three professional seasons playing in the Swedish Elite League — where he scored just 12 goals and had 30 assists over 103 games.

Provorov will turn 21 on January 13.

"It's coming," said Howe. "You can see it. There's a little bit more zip on his shot every time. Shot's getting a little better, reads are getting a little better.

"And he's not playing first power play. He's playing second power play. That equates to more numbers as well. If he's playing on that first power play and he's giving it to Giroux and Giroux is giving it to Jake, now you get a second assist — those numbers add up. But you've got the Ghost playing it, and the Ghost is good at it. And he can shoot the puck."

‘A little bit Lidstrom, a little bit Kimmo Timonen’

To be clear, neither Howe or Jones — who played against Lidstrom in his prime — is  predicting the same kind of  career for Provorov. At this point, Jones sees Provorov as a hybrid, a little bit Lidstrom, a little bit Kimmo Timonen. "A Lidstrom comes along once in a lifetime," said Howe.

Well, Lidstrom is 47 these days. That 5-year-old just lacing them up for the first time in Yuroslavl, or in the Delaware Valley, won't be watching him. Barring an unforeseen injury, they will learn by watching Ivan Provorov, already so mature at age 20, refine his game over the next lifetime.

"Thing is, he's going to be here for a lot of years," said Howe. "And for a team trying to build something, it's really helpful when you can count on that."