June 28, 2019 | 10:57pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

FLYERS HAVE HANDS TIED WITH PROVOROV

 
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Ivan Provorov, defenceman

 
 

MONTREAL, QC — Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher has been a busy man this off-season. He has swung two trades for veteran defencemen (Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun), landed highly-sought after centre Kevin Hayes to a $50 million contract and completely revamped his coaching staff, headlined by Alain Vigneault.

While Fletcher’s aggressive, or as some may refer to as polarizing, moves have been at centre stage in Flyer-land, the club’s significant RFAs have gone somewhat under the radar.

Heading into the summer, the Flyers had five significant restricted free agents in need of new deals: Forwards Scott Laughton, Travis Konecny and Ryan Hartman, along with defencemen Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim.

To date, Fletcher has resolved 40% of the RFA situation. Sanheim was inked to a team-friendly bridge deal; carrying a $3.25 million AAV over the next two seasons, while Hartman’s negotiating rights were dealt to Dallas for 27-year-old Tyler Pitlick (one-year left at $1 million) to ensure cost-certainty.

The Laughton contract doesn’t seem like it will drag out much longer. Coming off a career-best year (12 goals, 20 assists) in all main offensive categories, Laughton is due a raise from the $962,500 he made over the last two seasons. Often used as a third line winger or fourth line centre, Laughton’s number should come in around the $2 million AAV mark.

The Konecny deal will be a little tricky, as the 22-year-old former 2015 first-round pick played a much more prominent role for the Flyers. Skating within the Flyers’ top-six for the majority of the year, Konecny quietly produced quite the season; finishing with 24 goals and 49 points. While consistency continues to be his kryptonite, Konecny has already demonstrated that he is a serviceable top-six winger in the NHL. It is still unclear whether or not the Flyers will go the bridge route with Konecny, but a safe bet would be a four-year deal worth around $3.5million to $4.5 million per season when considering what Andreas Johnson (four years, $3.25M-$3.5M AAV) and Kasperi Kapanen (three year, $3.2M-$3.4M AAV) are looking to sign for in Toronto.

Then comes the Provorov deal, which is undoubtedly the most important one for Fletcher and the Flyers. According to Frank Seravalli of TSN, the Flyers and Provorov are not close on a new contract. It is rumored that Provorov is in the hunt for a max term (eight years) with an AAV of $8 million.

Since being drafted eighth overall in 2015, Provorov has been projected to be the backbone of the Flyers’ defense. To date, he has, for the most part, lived up to those expectations.

Since debuting in the 2016-17 season, Provorov has played in all 246 regular season games; compiling 30 goals, 97 points and has averaged more time on ice per game with just about 24 minutes (climbing over 25 in this past season). What’s even more telling is the type of minutes Provorov was deployed.

This past season, Provorov only averaged 1:33 of TOI on the power play out of the 25:07 that he’d get per game. In the last two seasons as a whole, no Flyers’ skater has started more in the defensive zone than Provorov (1,054). In the last three seasons, Provorov has played 682 minutes of shorthanded time; the next closest being Radko Gudas with 461.

Despite the reliance on him defensively, it could be argued that Provorov has never excelled in an offensive role, despite his 17 goal output in 2017-18. Averaging 32.3 points per season and .39 points per game, all while getting consistent secondary power play time, the offensive output of Provorov is satisfactory at best. Provorov has generated a little more than two shots per game over his career, but was down to 1.7 this past season.

Aside from his underwhelming offensive output, a glaring hole in Provorov’s game is his amount of giveaways. In each of the last two seasons, Provorov had 92 giveaways; the next closest being Shayne Gostisbehere with 105 total in the same time frame. Granted, a lot of that can be directly correlated to the hard minutes that Provorov is forced to play on a nightly basis, but it is still an area that has room for improvement.

So, is Provorov worthy of a $64 million contract? At first glance, the answer is simple: no. But when you dig deeper, and compare him to similar counterparts league-wide, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

In 2017-18, Provorov played at a level on par with Victor Hedman, per an article by Travist Yost in August of 2018. Yes, Provorov took an exceptional step back in the first half of 2018-19, but who on the Flyers’ back end actually excelled? Gostisbehere’s play was as brutal as anyone, finishing -20 despite getting more offensive zone starts than any other Flyers rearguard. Gudas and Sanheim were the two standouts on the back end for the Flyers, but neither was within even five minutes of Provorov’s TOI per game.

Contracts in the NHL are negotiated using comparables, and the best comparable for Provorov is Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Using Ekblad’s first three seasons, the two are eerily similar. Ekblad tallied .42 points per game while averaging about 22 TOI. What’s even more telling is that Ekblad never once led his team in ice time during his first three seasons. Having been insulated first by Brian Campbell and now Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson, Ekblad only led his team in TOI per game for the first time this past season with 23:39. But even with that hefty workload, Yandle (22:27) and Matheson (22:19) were not far behind him.

Although Ekblad has put up sexier offensive numbers, it is safe to say that the Flyers lean on Provorov a lot heavier than the Panthers lean on Ekblad for hard defensive assignments.

On July 1, 2016, Ekblad signed an eight-year, $60 million contract ($7.5 AAV) with Florida. The NHL salary cap has risen significantly since then; and consequently so have contracts. Considering this, there is absolutely no way that Provorov should settle for anything less than $8 million.

Provorov is the backbone of the Philadelphia blueline, and, for the time being, there is no other player even close to being capable of overtaking him. Yes, Provorov has yet to fully develop offensively and completely round out his game, but even at that he is the far and away best defenseman the Flyers have on their roster. Prior to playing alongside a sophomore Sanheim this season, Provorov was often paired alongside players like Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg; neither of which are even top-four, let alone top pairing, defensemen in the NHL. Had Provorov gotten to play with a significant veteran like Campbell or Yandle, there is no telling where his game could have gone.

The Flyers have been starved for a true number one defenseman since the departure of Kimmo Timonen in 2014. The club has had a mish-mash of mediocre rearguards attempting to fill the void in that time; ultimately to no avail. They finally have it in Provorov, at the mere age of 22, and while his game has room for improvements, he is the defenseman of the future for this club. You have to pay for quality in this league, and it’s now time for the Flyers to pay up for a guy they have been long-starving for.

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Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
Follow him on Twitter.