Flyers fans are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigma.
For people who are not familiar with this phrase that was first applied by Winston Churchill during World War II to describe the Soviet Union, perhaps the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is more appropriate.
The point being is that Flyers fans are incredibly diverse and passionate about their team. With all opinions that various segments of the fanbase has, the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup (much like Goldilocks really liking porridge) is something that all fans can identify with. Where fans come into conflict with one another is what temperature the porridge that we all love should be to be enjoyed.
Some fans dislike porridge that is too hot. Others dislike porridge that is too cold. Everyone thinks that their ideal temperature for enjoying porridge is ‘just right’ and have real difficulty understanding that not everyone can or should be in agreement in all matters and issues surrounding this team all of the time.
Some favor an analytics approach to assessing player performance, while others rely on their experience of watching hockey to make judgements. Some fans wanted to see the Flyers make a move this offseason to improve upon their breakthrough this past season, while others wanted Chuck Fletcher to stay the course and just let the young players mature and grow from their experience. Some love the Flyers new reverse-retro jerseys. Others feel that a return to the black uniforms of the late 90’s and early 2000’s was a far better choice.
These are only some of the seemingly never-ending debates that we as fans can have with each other. These different views and perspectives will never be truly solved until either the Flyers win the Stanley Cup or the Flyers fail to truly contend for a Stanley Cup and ultimately prove certain parts of this fanbase to be correct while others are incorrect.
Regardless, this fanbase remains a riddle to me (wrapped in a mystery and inside an enigma) as I am sure that others who have different points of view regarding this team can also sympathize with.
Fans are also very opinionated with regards to the players that are current and former members of this team. At times, some of these players have had an almost universal reaction from the fanbase (ie. Andrew MacDonald, Dale Weise, and Jori Lehtera painfully come to mind). Other players have inspired debate and created a divide amongst the fanbase. We have seen it with Shayne Gostisbehere; a player who has enjoyed tremendous success early in his career, but has also been underwhelming and unimpactful more recently. We have seen it with Robert Hagg; who the analytics crowd continues to bash based on his underlying metrics, while others see Hagg as a player who is seen as a dependable option in a third pairing role and contributing to the overall success of the team.
I am proud to say that before last season, I predicted that Hagg would have a better season and a fresh start under new Head Coach Alain Vigneault. While he certainly did not set the world on fire with his play, his steady play once he became a mainstay in the lineup made many fans realize that the Hagg scapegoating was not only unfair, but also was not proportional to the importance and actual role that he actually plays on a nightly basis. The Flyers were never a team that relied on Hagg to be the make or break factor to make the postseason, nor was he the sole reason why the Flyers made a breakthrough in the postseason this year to get past the first round for the first time since 2012. Regardless, Hagg has his supporters, detractors, naysayers, and apologists. There will also be no end to this division of the fanbase as long as Hagg is a member of the Flyers.
It is a stark reminder that this fanbase (or at least parts of it) turns on its players. This is nothing new and in many ways is a part of most if not all fanbases, but certainly it is a prominent feature of the Flyers fanbase. The mystifying part to me is how some fans have no problem bashing certain players, while others are seemingly untouchable. It appears fashionable to be part of the crowd and pile on the critiques and criticisms of a player based on the whims of social media because they have deemed a player’s play to be unworthy, while others players cannot be criticized at all for their play and are beyond criticism. Those untouchable players play cannot even be discussed in a negative light and are sheltered and protected by parts of the fanbase and initiates the response of fans turning on other fans for daring to commit such a blasphemous act.
I started to wonder which player will be the next to be turned on by some parts of this fanbase. Some players immediately come to mind. Nolan Patrick is an obvious choice although he already has his fair share of supporters and detractors. But without knowing for sure if Patrick is going to be medically cleared for contact and resume his NHL career, I thought the circumstances are currently ripe for some fans to turn on another player that is a vital part of this teams hopes and dreams of competing for the Stanley Cup.
That player is Ivan Provorov.
Looking at his career overall, it is hard to believe that Provorov will be entering only his fifth NHL season when hockey resumes. While still considered a young player based on years of experience, his usage and the amount of trust and reliance that the Flyers have placed on him would absolutely place him as an experienced player beyond his years who is utilized in all game situations. Here are his career numbers:
After the season that Provorov just had; rebounding from a sub-par 2018-2019 season to score 13 goals and 23 assists for 36 points in 69 games, it seems like Provorov would be safe from the ire of the fans. If Provorov’s numbers from this season are extrapolated to represent a full 82 game season, Provorovs numbers turn into 15 goals and 28 assists for 43 points which would have been a new career high.
What could possibly shake the fanbase’s trust in who is by far the most important and influential defenseman on this roster?
The shocking and unforeseen retirement of Provorov’s defense partner Matt Niskanen has created a bit of uncertainty for the Flyers heading into next season. Many have pointed to the fact that Provorov was able to return to form by being paired with the veteran presence that Niskanen was able to provide. Paired with Niskanen, Provorov was able to share the burden of being a top pair rearguard while being comfortable enough to be able to play his game knowing that his experienced partner would be there to pick up the slack. Others have also pointed out that Provorov would be able to learn from the veteran Niskanen (a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals in 2018) what it takes to be a leader on a team looking to take a step towards competing for the Stanley Cup.
Will Provorov continue his development and get even better going forward?
The whispers and questions are already being bandied about.
Some fans have ignored the retirement of Niskanen and claim that Provorov needs to assert himself as the teams unquestioned number one defenseman. They claim that the great defenders of this league don’t need partners to justify their individual dominant play or meaning to their respective teams. They claim that the Flyers should not have to have a defenseman paired with Provorov to ‘hold his hand’ to reach his potential.
They do have a point to a degree. The great defensemen of the NHL play at such a high level where their partners fly very much under the radar and their play is essential to their teams’ success. Look no further than Victor Hedman of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
As I said before, there is a valid point there. But it doesn’t tell the complete story of Ivan Provorov and how important he is to this team. Provorov is by a country mile the most important defenseman on this Flyers team. He plays an absurd amount of minutes against the top players of the opposition in every situation imaginable. He has the trust of the coaching staff and more importantly has the trust of his fellow teammates.
So why are people whispering that this season is the time for Provorov to entrench himself as an elite level defenseman?
Much of this began with the infamous heat map that ignorantly slandered Provorov as “a weak 5v5 second-pair defender who hurts his team’s powerplay substantially”. This abhorrent take has been used as “evidence” to belittle Provorov whose analytics were not as strong as that of Travis Sanheim during the disappointing 2018-2019 season. To begin with, there are no second pairing defensemen who have the numbers that Provorov has put up with the responsibilities and usage heaped on him from his coaches. So there goes that bit of faulty analysis.
Then there is the critique of Provorov’s effectiveness on the powerplay. The misfiring powerplay was clearly a significant factor for the Flyers during the postseason, and Provorov was increasingly blamed by some fans for its lack of creativity and effectiveness as the season progressed. Interestingly, these critiques could not answer why Provorov led the NHL among defensemen with 7 powerplay goals this season. It also tellingly ignores that Provorov was tied for the Flyers lead in powerplay goals this season with Claude Giroux who also had 7 goals. Provorov outscored every other mainstay on the first powerplay unit this season Konecny (5), Voracek (4), and Couturier (4); but received a significant proportion of the blame for the powerplay’s ineffectiveness.
The reason for this is simple: Provorov is not given the respect that he needs from some portions of this fan base. As a result, he doesn’t get the respect that he should get from the rest of the NHL. He is the hockey embodiment of comedian Rodney Dangerfield who lamented as his famous tagline, “I get no respect…no respect at all”. He isn’t one of the ‘cool kids’ that are immune to criticism even when that criticism is deserved and fairly applied. Rather, portions of this fanbase love to point out Provorov’s shortcomings and what his game lacks rather than applaud his strengths and what he brings to the table.
In the interest of fairness, Provorov’s offensive output is not at the level that I would consider to be at the level of an elite number one defenseman. It is one area that I hope to see Provorov continue to improve. However, just about every other aspect of his game is. Yes, he certainly has made errors on the back end, and at times is guilty of trying to do too much with the puck. At the same time, Provorov has shown that he is capable of getting fans out of their seat as his overtime winner against the Montreal Canadiens demonstrates. He is capable of making plays like that, I just think that fans collectively would argue that he could be making plays like that more often than he has been.
Still, as last season continued to play itself out, the negativity surrounding Provorov and his play escalated even though the player was in the midst of matching (or exceeding) his best season in the NHL to date. It is truly bizarre behavior considering this fan base loses its collective mind every time Provorov is omitted from any discussion of the top defensemen in the NHL list that gets published. The same fans that call for Provorov to be demoted from powerplay one, lose their minds on Twitter and claim that that the NHL’s lists are biased against the Philadelphia Flyers and their players. How can both of these things be true? They can’t.
Which brings us to the retirement of Matt Niskanen. No replacement was brought in to replace Niskanen’s experience which means that in all likelihood Phillipe Myers will be given every opportunity to play the right side of the top pairing as Provorov’s partner. I will freely agree with Chuck Fletcher that outside of Alex Pietrangelo, there was no signing that would be have been able to replicate what Niskanen did last year. So, the Flyers signed Erik Gustafsson to a 1-year deal worth $3 million dollars.
Bringing in Erik Gustafsson was a puzzling move to say the least and was confusing to everyone. He does not bring the leadership and veteran pedigree to fill the void that Niskanen’s retirement has created. Instead, it widens the door and invites more speculation that Gustafsson will be used to address the woes of the powerplay even though Gustafsson had 2 powerplay goals last season in 66 games. Even in 2018-2019 when Gustafsson scored a career high 60 points in 79 games, he only scored 4 goals and 18 points while on the man advantage (3 less goals but 2 more points than Provorov). To think that the evidence points to Gustafsson being the solution for what ails the Flyers powerplay is hopeful, misleading, and misguided at best.
Chuck Fletcher is on the record stating that Gustafsson is not a replacement for Matt Niskanen. I believe him. But not addressing the defense and having Provorov’s defense partner up in the air is leaving the door open for the back end to be a question mark for a team that is on the rise. Can Phillipe Myers be a top pairing defensemen paired on the right side with Provorov. Yes. Can he do it this year in only his second NHL season? That is uncertain. I am sure that Myers will be given every opportunity to succeed, but fan expectations need to be reigned in. Myers will have some challenging games ahead of him this season. Every young defenseman goes through periods where they make poor decisions, blow a defensive coverage, or are caught out of position. It happens.
What are the expectations for Ivan Provorov from this fanbase? Is it fair that a defensemen who does so many of the little nuanced plays that tend to go unnoticed should take a significant step forward this season? All while playing the most minutes on the team against the best players that the opposition has and with a likely defense partner that has all of 71 games of experience under his belt?
I understand the feeling of wanting to see Provorov establish himself as an elite level NHL defenseman. But the notion that he needs to become this player under the circumstances that the Flyers have heading into this season is a tall order. Bringing up the examples of Victor Hedman or Roman Josi is not a fair comparable. He isn’t that type of player. It isn’t even really about the Flyers having to have someone ‘hold his hand’ (in an of itself the comment is disrespectful and demeaning) but rather steers the conversation away from management doing what needs to be done and putting players together on the ice to allow the team to perform collectively and as individuals to their potential.
Provorov will be thrust into a role as a teacher this coming season. He now has the responsibility of being not only the best defender on the team, but to also teach those around him to be better. Some people are born teachers and are excellent communicators. Others are brilliant people in their chosen fields of study that couldn’t explain a concept or idea on their best day. We have all met people like that. I am not saying that Ivan Provorov will fail. I think he will give his absolute best effort to be the best player that he can be with whatever partner gets paired up with him. I just think the Flyers offseason has thrust this upon him at a critical time and under unusual circumstances.
He may take another step in his development this season, although I think it will be in terms of leadership and not necessarily offensively as most fans seem to want to expect from an elite level defenseman. Fans are clamouring for Ivan Provorov to be an elite NHL defenseman, but don’t seem to be happy that he is an elite level Flyers defenseman. Think about where this team would be without him. It is baffling to me why some members of this fan base appear to be out of patience with Provorov, and the conditions are ripe for the doubters to enjoy a possible let down after a successful season. They are already sharpening their knives to lay the blame on Provorov’s lack of development into an elite defenseman rather than the inability or unwillingness of management to address the departure of Niskanen.
Imagine what the porridge would taste like without him. Fans need to stop arguing that Provorov gets no respect from the NHL and need to focus on Flyers fans who don’t give him enough credit for what he is. Fans need to stop arguing over the temperature that the porridge should be and instead be thankful that this porridge is ours. I guarantee you that the Goldilock’s of the NHL will be coming around to appreciate all that he does before large parts of Flyers fans do.
Ivan Provorov and comedian Rodney Dangerfield get “No respect at all”. But they should.
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