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Mike Sielski: The indestructible Ivan Provorov can be the Flyers' greatest homegrown defenseman

Mike Sielski, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Hockey

For the sake of his team, a remarkable streak, and his status among the NHL’s best defensemen, Ivan Provorov travels nearly 10,000 miles each offseason, from Philadelphia to his home city in Russia and back again, for a training regimen that would put Ivan Drago to shame. In Yaroslavl, 160 miles northeast of Moscow, Provorov reunites with a cadre of coaches and specialists who have been working with him since he was 8 years old. Six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, for 10 to 12 weeks, Provorov skates, lifts weights, runs on a track, and boxes. There’s more. One of his coaches is devoted just to cycling. Saturdays are for swimming. Sundays are for rest.

The goal of this grueling schedule is to build enough strength and endurance in Provorov that the Flyers’ season, from opening night until whenever its end might arrive, will be a cakewalk for him. Then he can just maintain his conditioning with small weights, with band- and body weight-resistance exercises, and play all the hockey that the Flyers need from him.

Here, over Provorov’s four years with them, is what the Flyers have gotten from him: They have played 315 regular-season games during that period. He has, too, averaging just less than 24 minutes in each, and for a measure of perspective on his consecutive-games streak, remember that, of the 28 players in NHL history who have played in at least 500 straight games, just four are defensemen, so physically demanding is the position. Provorov also has suited up for all of the Flyers’ 22 playoff games during his career, including Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, a double-overtime victory over the Islanders in which he logged more than 38 minutes of ice time.

The ungodly workload is nothing new for him. As a 14-year-old playing bantam hockey, Provorov was one of just five defensemen on the roster of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Junior Knights, and there were occasions when, if the Knights faced a succession of shorthanded situations and/or power plays, his shift might last as long as nine minutes.

“When those games come, I’m always ready,” Provorov said in a phone interview Monday, two days before the Flyers’ season-opener against the Penguins at what will be a mostly empty Wells Fargo Center. “No matter how many minutes the coaches let me play, I’m always ready, whether it’s 25, whether it’s 27, whether it’s like that double-overtime game and it goes to 40 minutes. I’m always out there, and I’m always doing my best every shift. I never feel like I’m out of gas or too tired and can’t handle it.”

If Carter Hart’s stability and oft-spectacular play in net make him invaluable to the Flyers, Provorov can be the team’s second-most important player in the present and still stand alone and above the franchise’s past. For the Flyers’ 53 years of existence, they’ve never had a Norris Trophy winner, and their finest defensemen – Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger – began their careers with other organizations. Jimmy Watson had a solid-to-excellent 10-year career here, but Provorov is on course to surpass him, and soon, as the Flyers’ greatest homegrown defenseman.

He is aware of that history, the chance he has to change it.

 

“It’s definitely a goal of mine,” he said of winning the Norris. “I try to be the best. I try to do that every year. I know it’s hard to do as soon as you come into the league, doing it in the first few years, because there are so many great defensemen in the league. Now it’s time to be up there and try to be one of the best defensemen in the league. That’s what my goal is, and hopefully I’ll be able to win it someday.”

First, though, he apparently has to persuade a sizable portion of the NHL that he’s worthy of consideration. In October, the NHL Network posted on Twitter a list of what it regarded as the top 25 defensemen in the league, asking fans to weigh in on who was No. 1. Provorov led all defensemen in power-play goals last season with seven, and he ranked eighth in ice time per game (24:51), but his name wasn’t on the list.

“Everyone’s got a different opinion on that,” he said. “I know where I stand. I know personally I’m definitely there, but if someone doesn’t put me on some sort of list, I’m not going to be upset. I know where I stand. I know what I play for. Every time I go out there, I try to win in every way possible and help the team in every way possible. People who know the game know what the actual list is and where I stand on it.”

The more important pecking order, for Provorov and the Flyers, is probably the one within their locker room. Before training camp began, coach Alain Vigneault pulled Provorov aside for a talk, asking him to take on more leadership in the locker room, more responsibility on and off the ice for the team’s fortunes. The Flyers, from an emotional and intangible standpoint, have taken their collective cues from Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek for a long time, and from a coach quick to call out veteran players for their subpar physical shape and their lack of production in a season’s biggest games and moments, this wasn’t so much a request of Provorov as it was a demand.

“He has been with this organization five years,” Vigneault said. “Every year, I think he has had a more important and bigger role. It is his time to be the example and the role model.”

The team’s intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday night afforded him one more circumstance, before the start of the regular season, to test and prove his value. A slapshot by Oskar Lindblom struck Provorov in the right foot, in the sliver of awkward space between his shin pad and his skate. The good news for the Flyers is that he skated away the pain, returned to the scrimmage, and will be fine for Wednesday night’s game. The better news is that, on the same day, Ivan Provorov will turn 24.

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