Legendary Flyers defenseman Mark Howe has said that he used to challenge himself to play a perfect game. It's an extraordinarily tough achievement; somewhat akin to someone trying to assemble an entire 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in a half-hour.
To hit the mark, every facet of every shift has to be executed without flaw. For example, when defending, no attacker can establish inside stick position on the defender. Not a single breakout pass can be in the skates or behind the target. Every realistic opportunity for a keep at the point must result in the puck staying in the offensive zone. If there's an open shooting lane, the shot has to get on net. The defenseman cannot get caught up ice on a bad pinching decision, even once, whether it results in an opposing goal or a recovery.
Hockey is a game of mistakes; one in which even the elites typically have a few less-than-flawless shifts per game. By Howe's estimation, he managed the perfect game feat three or four times. That was out of a Hockey Hall of Fame career of 1,030 NHL regular season and playoff games plus 501 WHA regular season and playoff games as a left winger converted mid-career to a defenseman.
How good is Flyers second-year defenseman Ivan Provorov now and how good might he become in the future? So good that it is not preposterous to suggest he's capable of playing a couple of games to that almost impossibly lofty standard. So good that, at age 20, the reigning Barry Ashbee Trophy winner is already the Flyers best two-way defenseman and still has only scratched the surface of some of his capabilities.
It's not that Provorov - or any player - is immune to miscues. His aim is not perfection, but rather to do what is within his control to take as many shifts as possible. In fact, part of what sets him apart from most young defensemen is his ability to bounce back immediately after a bad shift or a rare bad game. Adversity does not shake his confidence or focus. He also cares nothing for personal stats.
Over the past week in particular, Provorov has shown a multi-faceted game that goes beyond just a stat sheet.
When the Flyers rallied from a three-goal deficit against the Arizona Coyotes in the third period, including two goals in the final minute, Provorov made two crucial keeps in the offensive zone and assisted on all three goals the Flyers scored to steal a largely undeserved point. Two nights later in Chicago, Provorov broke his career-ice in his ice time (set the previous game against the Coyotes) by logging 29:51 across 30 shifts. The following night in St. Louis, Provorov tied a franchise record with 10 blocked shots and played stifling defensive hockey, particularly against Vladimir Tarasenko; one of the deadliest attackers in the NHL.
"That was just a big-time performance for our team, obviously," Jakub Voracek said. "The whole team stepped up but he was huge for us."
Provorov, who has played hockey in North America since he was 14 years old, speaks fluent and almost unaccented English. Speaking the language of hockey, teammates say he's quickly emerged as a strong communicator on the ice. However, although Provorov is analytical and introspective, he generally prefers to let his play do the talking.
"Last year, Ivan was pretty quiet but he's speaking up a little more this year," Brandon Manning said. "I think that's one of the areas where he's developing but, obviously, he's been a key guy for us pretty much since the beginning."
When interviewed by the media, Provorov gets straight to the point. Typically, he prefers the focus to be directed on the team rather than on himself.
"Everybody here is good, and everyone can play," Provorov said. "I just try to be ready to play. Everyone likes to be on the ice, and you want to help your team win. I try to learn and get better, and that's about it."
Teammates and coaches, however, understand that Provorov isn't just another skilled young player trying to find an identity and improvement. He's different, in the best possible way.
Flyers rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim, himself is a high-upside young talent but cannot help but marvel at how easy Provorov makes difficult plays look. Sanheim has had the experience of playing against Provorov in the Western League (Provorov's Brandon Wheat Kings club and Sanheim's Calgary Hitmen have built a rivalry over the years), seeing him at work in Development Camp and training camp and now as NHL teammates.
"You look at Provy and you think, 'Wow, he's going to be an NHL star.' He just does so many things well already. It's pretty awesome to watch," Sanheim said. "Like, you look at the 10 blocked shots in St. Louis and that's really making a difference."
Even compared to many NHL veteran defensemen, Provorov is a highly advanced player in terms of his hockey sense as well as his skill.
He knows when to pinch and when to peel back. His stick-on-puck work, body positioning, box outs and overall play without the puck are usually excellent. He has a quick defensive stick and also knows when to use his body to block shots. The 20-year-old is also remarkably poised, even under heavy forechecking pressure. In the trenches, his formidable physical strength comes into play. Additionally, while he doesn't often look to crush opposing players with his physical game, Provorov finishes his checks effectively when the opportunity arises.
With the puck on his stick, Provorov routinely makes crisp and accurate breakout passes. He can saucer a pass as well as some forwards and he reads the play well. There is room for him to be more aggressive offensively and make more consistent use of a heavy shot - he is still somewhat in the nascent stages as an NHL power play point threat - but he has the pedigree of developing into the rare defenseman who can produce points at a healthy clip while still playing outstanding defensive hockey.
In fact, Provorov has already posted eight points (two goals that he pinched down for to the top of the circle or the deep slot and rocketed home as well as a half-dozen assists) in 15 games. If he keeps up that pace for a full season, it would translate to about 42 points in his second NHL season.
"Provy is just a very mature hockey player," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "His focus, preparation and attention to detail are at a high level, along with his physical conditioning. Those are things that stand out to me."
One of the keys to Provorov's success is his fitness level, which leaves even fellow professional players in awe. He maintains a strict diet and an ultra-intensive off-season regimen with a personal trainer that he declines to divulge in any detail because he views it as a competitive secret. It pays off in his ability not only in stamina within individual games and across grueling multi-game stretches of the season, but also in his recovery times between shifts.
Provorov was recently asked how fast are his typical recovery times. He grinned slightly.
"Fast," he said.
Beat writer Dave Isaac followed up. "Like Ray Bourque fast? Fifteen to 20 seconds fast?"
"Yes, right around there," Provorov said.
In addition to the way Provorov hones his body for hockey, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall points to how the defenseman also keeps his mind sharp. Hockey isn't just Provorov's athletic passion, the game occupies his mind most of the time.
"He's a special kid in terms of his whole focus in life is hockey. He's 24/7 about hockey. He watches hockey," Hextall told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He studies hockey. He thinks hockey. He trains a ridiculous amount of time in the summer. He's a hockey player, and it's special."