The path to becoming an NHL defenseman isn't easy.
Philadelphia Flyers prospect Ivan Provorov and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski, selected back-to-back early in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, might be set to take that next step.
Provorov, chosen No. 7 by the Flyers, could prove valuable to a defense that allowed 30.7 shots per game last season, eighth-most in the League. Werenski (No. 8) might offer some stability to a defense that allowed 31.1 shots per game, tied for fourth-most in the League.
Each player has been given every chance during training camp to earn a significant role this season.
"I got bigger (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) and stronger, and I'm a better player than I was a year ago," said Provorov, 19. "I just want to prove that I'm ready to play."
Provorov is getting plenty of ice time in key situations during the preseason. He played 28:48 in the Flyers' preseason opener.
Three of the Flyers' top prospects besides Provorov also are defensemen, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg. Morin and Hagg played for Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League last season.
Some scouts believed Provorov was NHL-ready last season, but the Flyers returned him to Brandon of the Western Hockey League, where he had 73 points (21 goals, 52 assists) to lead WHL defensemen, and his plus-64 rating was best in the league.
"I was hoping to make the roster because you always want to succeed at everything you do," Provorov said, "but I didn't make the team and returned to Brandon with the mentality that I would try to help my team win the championship. I focus on the little things and don't really think about pressure of getting a roster spot. I want to get better and I feel if I play my game, I should be fine."
Provorov played a big part in Brandon winning the WHL championship with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) and a plus-22 rating in 21 playoff games. He was named the top defenseman in the WHL and the Canadian Hockey League.
Werenski, 19, left the University of Michigan after his sophomore season and immediately contributed to Cleveland's (formerly Lake Erie) AHL championship run. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) and a plus-8 rating in 17 games for the Calder Cup champions.
Werenski was named 2016 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and named to the All-Big Ten first team and conference tournament team.
"The biggest thing I learned in my time in the AHL was that I could do it," Werenski said. "In the beginning I wasn't really sure coming out of college what the style or pace would be like. But I eventually became comfortable with the speed and just played my hardest."
The left-shot defenseman not only has a good chance of making the Blue Jackets roster, but of making it better, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. The other defense prospect looking to earn full-time duty in Columbus this season is Scott Harrington, 23, acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Kerby Rychel on June 25.
"I think that experience [in the AHL] set me up for a better training camp this year, especially since I got my feet wet with some guys that I wasn't familiar with, so that was a plus," Werenski said. "Winning a Calder Cup in my first two months of pro hockey was a great experience."
The Blue Jackets like Werenski's speed, vision and poise, as well as the fact he established himself as the point man on the power play during the AHL playoffs. He played for Columbus in the eight-team Traverse City prospects tournament in September and was one of NHL.com's top 11 players at the event despite being limited to two games because of a groin injury. The injury kept Werenski from participating in the first week of training camp.
"I'm just going to … play my game and hopefully that lands me a spot on the big team," Werenski said. "If not, it's not the end of the world. I'll go to Cleveland, where we just won a championship, and get back to work there and hopefully get called up at some point."