As the 2015 NHL Draft combine get underway, and our series of profiles of the class' top picks continues, there is one name that continues to creep into the conversation.
As I have touched on before, one name, Mathew Barzal, were it not for a crippling knee injury, would also likely be in that mix.
But there's another. According the National Post's Michael Traikos, not only is WHL defender Ivan Provorov squeaking into some top-5s, but he's also in the mix for the Leafs.
And while Provorov ranks eighth in my final top 60 prospects ranking for the 2015 NHL Draft with McKeen's Hockey, behind another yet-to-be profiled defensemen, Zach Werenski (I'll profile him in the future), the Russian defensemen's stock has been rising.
Provorov, a standout on Russia's silver medal-winning World Juniors team, is a physical defensemen with heavy, accurate shot who isn't afraid to jump up into the play or lay a devastating open ice hit.
After posting one assists in seven games playing big minutes for Team Russia over the holidays, Provorov returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings for one of the most impressive late-season runs a defensemen has had in the Western Hockey League (WHL) in recent years.
The young Russian defensemen finished the season with 61 points and 15 goals (both of which were first among draft-eligible and rookie defensemen) in 60 games.
Provorov's 15 goals were bested only by Capitals prospect Madison Bowey (17) who played on the league's best team, the Kelowna Rockets, as well as a pair of Victoria Royal defensemen (prospect Travis Brown and diminutive defensemen-turned-forward Jack Walker) who played more than 10 more games than Provorov.
Provorov is more than that in-your-face, scoring defender though. He plays a complete game in his own end, and is an adept penalty killer. His creativity as a passer also give him more than one weapon in the offensive zone.
And while Provorov isn't as gifted a skater as his top defensive counterparts Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski are, his pure strength and strong, low stride remain assets. He's also one of the classes best stickhandler from the backend.
Statistically, he stands out from the pack. In fact, Provorov's 0.95 age adjusted points per game (aaPPG) ranked first in the WHL this season, ahead of Anaheim's Shea Theodore (0.89), Detroit's Joe Hicketts (0.88), and Philadelphia's Travis Sanheim (0.83).
At a young age, Provorov has already learned to impose himself on a game, and dictate the play, something many young, gifted defensemen struggle to accomplish.
Note the way Provorov keeps his head up, identifies the defender, and then goes right at him in this end-to-end goal.
It's plays like that that many defenders don't have the confidence, or the talent, to execute. Not only does Provorov not take the puck wide initially, he takes carries the puck into the inside of the ice, knowing it will open up a seam.
And notice his heavy, in-full-stride release here, as he identifies his spot and leans into the shot.
Again, few defenders have the ability to make that play.
And while, as Traikos and others have alluded, Provorov might be in the Leafs' sights and a potential candidate if they trade down, I've made it clear that Noah Hanifin, Dylan Strome, and Mitch Marner are my clear 3-5 ranked prospects should Toronto decide to stay at fourth overall.
Recent talks that Provorov, a special defender in his own right, is the best defensemen in the class strike me more as the age-old Pick-Apart-An-Elite-Prospect-Until-You-Talk-Yourself-Out-Of-Believing-They-Are-Elite Syndrome for Noah Hanifin. Hanifin, who doesn't possess Provorov's shot but matches him on the defensive end of the ice and exceeds him with world-beating speed, remains the best defensemen in the class.
Where Provorov will come into play is if the Leafs feel they can trade down and acquire another pick or two (the Leafs currently don't have a second round pick) for a team eager to draft Hanifin or one of the two potential first line centres available inside the top five.
It would make little sense to draft Provorov at fourth overall, knowing he'd likely be available in the 6-8 range with Barzal, Werenski, and co.