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Meltzer's Line Play: D-Pair 1

Flyer contributor continues his series naming his top pair on the blueline

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Priority number one for the Flyers as they head into training camp is to instill the importance of dramatically cutting the team's 29th-ranked goals against average (3.44 GAA) from last season. Each and every one of the teams in the NHL that ranked ranked 21st to 31st in GAA during the 2018-19 failed to qualify for the playoffs. Conversely, 16 of the 20 teams in the top 20 made the playoffs. 

The onus does not fall entirely on the Flyers blueline corps to accomplish this feat but, of course, improved all-around play from the defensemen is a major part of the puzzle that needs to snap into place. The other pieces include the hope for much more stable goaltending (via the tandem of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott) than last year, the impact of an all-new coaching staff and a systems overall, the addition of another two-way center (Kevin Hayes) to the top-six portion of the forward corps, and a need for the penalty kill to improve over a full season and not just half of one. 

In the hopes of bolstering and adding leadership to the blueline, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired veteran minutes-eaters Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to the blueline. Apart from bring their experience of playing big minutes on Stanley Cup contending teams -- a recent Stanley Cup champion in Niskanen's case -- their additions also give new head coach Alain Vigneault and assistant coach in charge of defensemen and PK, Mike Yeo, the potential to ice two or three separate defense pairings with one lefthanded shooter and one righthanded shooter. 

Unlike the forward corps where there are one or two jobs up for grabs within the bottom six, the defense corps picture is a bit clearer in terms of how the roster is likely to shake out come opening night. Here is a look at how the pairings might be arranged, starting with the top pairing.

LEFT SIDE: IVAN PROVOROV
The Flyers' time on ice (TOI) leader in each of his three NHL seasons to date, Provorov remains an unsigned restricted agent. The organization is hopeful of getting him signed before training camp opens, but that is not a guarantee. The Flyers are in a similar situation with Provorov as the Columbus Blue Jackets are with Zach Werenski and the Boston Bruins are with Charlie McAvoy. Once one player signs and sets the market, the others may soon follow with their respective teams.

Apart from getting signed and getting acclimated to the new systems and a likely new defense partner in training camp, Provorov will need to put a disappointing 2018-19 season into the rearview mirror and return to the form he showed in his second NHL campaign, when he appeared to be on the brink of breaking into the upper echelon of two-way defensemen around the league. 

For whatever reason, Provorov took a big backward step in various facets of his game last year: puck management, offensive output, and even the defensive zone poise and reads that were consistently reliable attributes as his rookie season progressed were not up to the standards he'd previously set. 

Was it the lingering physical or psychological effects of a separated shoulder Provorov suffered during Game 5 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals? Was it the pressure of the playing for a new contract and aiming for long-term extension? Was it a change in the type of stick he used?

Provorov repeatedly denied all of these theories, and others. He insisted that he felt fine and that his game was not far off from where he wanted it to be. He improved to some extent in the second half, but not consistently to the level of his 2017-18 season. 

While last season cannot entirely be written off as a fluke, the "real" Provorov is likely closer to the form he displayed in 2017-18. Even if he doesn't score 17 goals next season, he is capable of double-digit goals in an average season in addition to taking care of business in his own end of the ice. 

A bounceback year from Provorov is essential to the improvement of the Flyers' blueline this season. The sooner he is under contract, in camp, and getting ready for the season, the better the prospects are both for the player himself and for the team as a whole. 

RIGHT SIDE: MATT NISKANEN
Niskanen, who has averaged north of 20 minutes of ice time per game in each of the last seven seasons while playing for Cup-contending teams in Pittsburgh and Washington, logged a hefty 25:23 TOI average for the Capitals during their successful 2018 run to the Stanley Cup championship.

Overall, he has 125 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience to his credit as well as 881 regular season matches. The Minnesota native has gained a lot of hard-earned wisdom about exactly what it takes -- both individually and collectively -- to play deep into the spring. 

By this stage of his career, Niskanen may no longer be the same caliber of offensive player who twice posted 39+ points from the back end, topped 30+ points in four straight years (although he had 29 points in just 68 games in 2017-18) while also playing a strong two-way game with above-average mobility. On the defensive side, he had particularly notable skills for breaking up developing plays at or near the defensive blue line and in getting the puck up to forwards.   

Niskanen's proportion of offensive zone starts has decreased the last few years as he's made a gradual transition in his role. This past season, 57.4 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts started in the defensive zone. 

From a physical standpoint, Niskanen is not going to routinely hit with the frequency of Radko Gudas, for whom he was just traded. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Niskanen does not shy away from that aspect when necessary. Niskanen has averaged in the vicinity of two credited hits per game in recent years during the regular season; sometimes a bit more frequently in the postseason turf wars. For example, during the 2018-19 regular season, he was credited with 167 hits in 80 games. In the seven-game playoff series against Carolina, Niskanen had 21 hits.  

Niskanen, who was limited by injury to 68 regular season games in 2017-18 before his workhorse postseason run to the Stanley Cup championship, had a down season in 2018-19 compared to his prior standards. The abbreviated off-season after winning the Cup was one factor in some of his struggles, he believes. 

Additionally, last season, Niskanen was again banged up at times; most notably after a frightening headlong crash into the boards on Dec. 27 against Carolina. He struggled on the ice for the next six weeks or so. Nevertheless, he dressed in 80 regular season games and all seven of the Caps playoff games in a first-round upset loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. Niskanen averaged 21:56 of ice time.

Niskanen aims to become part of the Flyers leadership group. He is not a cheerleader or in-your-face "bad cop" type by nature. He tries to lead by example but will speak up when he feels it's important to do so.

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