PITTSTON, Pa. - Across the street from a doughnut shop, set on a gravelly hill hard on I-81 in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Revolution Ice Centre has the metallic veneer of an industrial warehouse and, like the inside of any hockey rink, the moist, pungent atmosphere that only liters of sweat chilling in a meat locker can create. Still, the people who run the Wilkes-Barre Knights, the powerhouse junior team headquartered there, do their best to dress up the place, and when it comes to interior decor, Ivan Provorov is a rather prolific muse.
Along the hallway just inside the front door are at least seven photos of Provorov - with the Knights, with the Brandon Wheat Kings, from an International Ice Hockey Federation tournament. Above the rink itself are 10 technicolored banners commemorating the championships that the Knights won while he was with them. And framed and hanging on a wall is a Flyers jersey with the No. 15, representing the year that they selected Provorov with the seventh overall pick in the NHL draft. It's the most prominent and recent Provorov ornament in the building, and it's an easy reference point for Tom Kowal, who coaches the Knights' junior team, to recall a question that a Flyers scout asked him about Provorov in the weeks before the '15 draft: What does the kid do that's bad?
"I was like, 'I'm the wrong guy to ask. I'm a coach learning from him,' " Kowal said during a recent interview in his office. "I go on the ice to just train him and work with him. 'OK, what do you want to do next, Ivan?' I'm asking a 15-year-old, 'What drill do you want to do next?' I was learning body posture from him when he was 15, 16 years old."
Provorov is 20 now, and out of a Flyers season that, by just about any measure, saw the team either remain stagnant or regress in its collective development, he was the one great revelation. He played in all 82 games, led the team in ice time - averaging nearly 22 minutes per game - and provided in one package both reassurance and promise for the franchise's future.
In a league in which so much of a team's success is predicated on moving the puck out of its defensive zone, on turning defense into offense quickly and seamlessly, Provorov already plays that style of game at a level that belies his age. He should only improve over time. The Flyers have a player with the potential to be an elite defenseman, and there's no price to put on such a commodity in the modern NHL. There were few shafts of sunlight for them last winter, but this was one.
"I don't like to talk about ceilings because I think sometimes you put false or unrealistic expectations," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week. "But for a 19-year-old defenseman to come in and provide the minutes, the hard minutes, steady play, composure, professionalism, I mean, it's unique. He's a special kid in terms of his whole focus in life is hockey. He's 24-7. He watches hockey. 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."
"Ivan's game is so mature," defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "He has no risk in his game. He's just so sound. The way he plays makes it look so easy, and it [ticks] people off. But just the things he does are unbelievable. He's awesome to watch. He makes the breakout look so easy. He's a great player and a great kid, and he's a great professional. He's only 20, and I'm like, this guy makes me look bad sometimes because he's so smooth. I don't see Provy having any problems next year. If he does, they'll be minor."
His presence guarantees the Flyers nothing, of course. This isn't the NBA, where a single transcendent player can reverse the fortunes of a franchise, or the NFL, where the right quarterback can transform a team into a Super Bowl contender. Hextall has an offseason full of hard decisions ahead of him, from an uncertain goaltending situation to the tread on the tires of the Flyers' top forwards, but Provorov should give him a measure of peace of mind for the next decade or more.
If Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol were at all unsure last fall whether Provorov was too green to handle the jump from major-junior to the NHL, Provorov's reaction to his rookie season's low point told them everything they needed to know. In his first week, he had that awful game in Chicago against the Blackhawks, when he was a minus-5 and appeared to have forgotten how to skate. A long night against those guys - against Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa - could prey on the wrong kid's fragile psyche forever. Yet Provorov extracted the proper lesson from his humiliation: You may have had no limits in Wilkes-Barre or Western Canada, but here, everyone gets humbled, so learn to make the simple play.
"That was my biggest adjustment," Provorov said. "You can't make the most out of every possession you have. So it probably took a little bit. In juniors, if there was no play, I could have just kept it myself or held onto the puck as long as I wanted to. You can't do that here. All the teams are well-structured and pressure hard, so sometimes you just have to chip it out and make a smart dump."
He had six goals and 30 points for the Flyers, seeing more power-play action as the season progressed, and in time, he will come to recognize more frequently when he can push the play and take more chances. In Wilkes-Barre, he could afford to be more daring because his skating and instincts were better than everyone else's. In the moment from Provorov's career there that stands out most in Kowal's memory, an opposing player hit Provorov low, and from the bench, Kowal feared the worst: that Provorov had sustained a severe knee injury.
The Knights' trainer helped Provorov to the dressing room, yet the collision didn't damage Provorov as much as it angered and inspired him. On his next shift that game, he scored a goal, stayed on the ice, and scored again on the same shift.
"I thought the kid was done for three weeks, and he scored two goals in 30 seconds," Kowal said. "Really, that's when I was like, 'This kid is never going to be denied. He's not going to stop until he's the best defenseman in the NHL.' And I think the kid's on the road."
If he gets there, if Ivan Provorov really does rise that far, they'll build a shrine of him here to match the one 120 miles to the north. For the Flyers, it's a pretty good thing to hope for. After this season, it was the best thing.