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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Nolan Patrick looks to be the Flyers’ future top-line center

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A potentially franchise-changing stroke of luck gave the Flyers arguably the top prospect in the 2017 draft. How good can he be?

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

To be blunt, there was very, very little that went the Philadelphia Flyers’ way during the 2016-17 NHL season.

Key veterans and stars looked like they had taken visible steps back, not posting the kind of results we were used to from them. The team’s top defenseman from the year prior caught bad break after bad break, and wasn’t nearly able to replicate his success from his Calder runner-up season. The team’s goalies couldn’t stop anything. And the coach, after a strong first year behind the NHL bench, routinely looked in over his head, making many questionable decisions in terms of both tactics and roster management as the year went on.

With rare exception, there was not much to write home about for the Philadelphia Flyers in the past calendar year. It seemed like everything that could go wrong did, at some point, go wrong, and the result was a step back both in the immediate term (the team went from making the playoffs the year prior to missing them) and when looking at the big picture (does this team have the right pieces in place to not just be in the playoffs long-term, but to eventually get over the top and get back into legitimate Stanley Cup contention?).

So go figure that, right after the end of the year where everything went wrong, the most important possible thing that could go right did.

By now, you obviously know the rest of the story. The Flyers jumped from 13th to 2nd in the draft lottery, cashing in on around a 1 in 42 chance of getting said pick. Then, the one team that ended up ahead of them — the New Jersey Devils — took QMJHL center Nico Hischier with the first pick in the draft. That left the Flyers with the near-consensus top-ranked prospect in the 2017 NHL Draft, the guy who suddenly became the team’s likely top-line center and potentially its franchise player into the next decade.

No pressure, though.

No. T-3: Nolan Patrick

Position: C
Age: 18 (9/19/1998)
Acquired Via: 2017 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 2
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Brandon (WHL) - 20 G, 26 A in 33 GP
Nationality: Canadian
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: N/A (was not in system)

With the dramatic introduction out of the way, let’s take some time here to try and address the three questions about Nolan Patrick that seem to shape every conversation that Flyers fans are having about him right now.

How worried should we be about Patrick’s health?

Yes, we have to at least address the main concern that led to Patrick falling to a position where the number-two-overall-pick-having Flyers could take him. As everyone around the team has him penciled into the top-line center spot for the next decade, the question of whether Patrick’s seemingly recurrent health problems will prevent him from reaching the lofty ceiling that has been set for him is possibly the most important question facing the Flyers right now.

And truthfully? It’s hard to really have a good answer to that question. There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that Patrick has missed some time due to injury in five of his past six hockey seasons. A timeline in which Patrick may always be a risk to miss significant time is an unpleasant one, as is one in which physical limitations that have piled up as a result of said injuries keep him from being able to consistently take advantage of his high-end skills like his shot and hockey sense.

Right now, on August 26, 2017, we can’t possibly know how that will all work out. All we can do is hope.

But here’s what we do know. First of all, if any NHL general manager would be able to get as much information on Patrick’s injuries as possible, it’s Ron Hextall. His connections to the Brandon Wheat Kings are fairly well-established, and he’s been in a position to talk to people who know Patrick’s situation well.

Additionally, the doctor who performed Patrick’s June sports hernia surgery – Dr. William Meyers – is based in Philadelphia and has done work with the Flyers several times before, and all accounts out of that surgery suggest that Patrick should be back to speed by the time the season will start. That’s great news, considering Patrick himself has said that he felt like he was playing at 70-to-75 percent of what he was physically capable of last season.

Even so, it’s reasonable to be concerned about Patrick’s health, and we may just need to see him be healthy and successful for a while before we can start to wave off those concerns. But if you’re an optimist and think that Patrick will have a long, healthy, and prosperous NHL career, you could even argue that if his injury history did just enough to scare the Devils away from him in the draft, it may be a blessing in disguise for the Flyers.

But again, we’re all just guessing here.

How soon will we see Patrick at the NHL level?

So with that, let’s move from the question no one wants to ask to the question everyone wants to ask: whether the Flyers’ newest top draft pick will be on the NHL team this year. Were he to make the team, Patrick would be the fifth Flyer ever to make the NHL immediately following his draft season (at age 18 or 19), and the first to do so since Sean Couturier in 2011-12.

While there’s no doubt that the Flyers’ fanbase is ready to see Patrick in orange and black this fall, there are reasons to believe that he may not be in the NHL in 2017-18. Historically, players that young are always in tough to make the NHL, for obvious reasons (read: hockey is hard). Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, when in doubt, has typically leaned towards having a young player spend more time at a lower level than at the highest one.

Additionally, Hextall has always said that the best players will play, and we know that the Flyers have at least three top-9-quality centers on their roster that they like (Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Valtteri Filppula). Sure, one of them could get pushed to the wing in favor of Patrick (Filppula in particular seems like a candidate for this), but there could just be a roster squeeze that pushes Patrick out if he doesn’t have a good enough camp.

Yet while there are reasons to remain cautious, there are similarly reasons to believe Patrick will be the first draft pick of the Hextall era to immediately make the NHL team. While yes, most draft picks don’t make the NHL immediately, most draft picks aren’t the second overall pick. And of the ones who are, those guys usually end up coming in pretty quickly. Here are the last 10 second overall picks, along with information on whether or not they immediately made and stuck with their NHL teams.

No. 2 Overall Picks

Draft Year Player Team Played in NHL immediately?
Draft Year Player Team Played in NHL immediately?
2016 Patrik Laine Winnipeg Yes
2015 Jack Eichel Buffalo Yes
2014 Sam Reinhart Buffalo No (9-game tryout)
2013 Aleksander Barkov Florida Yes
2012 Ryan Murray Columbus No
2011 Gabriel Landeskog Colorado Yes
2010 Tyler Seguin Boston Yes
2009 Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Yes
2008 Drew Doughty Los Angeles Yes
2007 James van Riemsdyk Philadelphia No

For the sake of all of our respective sanities, I should probably have cut this table off before the 2007 draft, but you get the picture regardless. While it’s certainly no guarantee, the general precedent for guys in Patrick’s situation is that they make the NHL immediately.

Now, granted, most of the teams listed above (teams that were drafting second overall because they were really bad, not because they won a 1 in 42 lottery) were worse than the Flyers currently are, which means it’s easier for an 18/19-year-old to crack their roster. The Flyers aren’t in as dire of a position as those teams were, and they have something resembling forward depth on their current roster. So this isn’t a perfect comparison.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a team that was 21st in the NHL in goal-scoring last year — and 27th at 5-on-5 — is one that should be turning down any potential upgrades, particularly one that is probably physically ready for the NHL and who likely would have been the first overall pick if not for injury concerns. We can’t know what Ron Hextall is thinking here, and it’s possible that after Patrick’s setback of a 2016-17 season the team wants to give him another year of big-time minutes in Brandon before giving him an NHL role. But for now, the smart money is on Patrick making the team this year.

And hopefully that’s exactly what happens, because then we can start to answer the most important Nolan Patrick-related question of all.

How good can Nolan Patrick be?

The general consensus surrounding the 2017 NHL Draft was that it was not nearly as strong of a draft as the previous few have been. Many took this general statement to mean it wasn’t quite as deep as in recent years, and that may be true, but others likely meant that statement as a comparison of those at the very top of those drafts. Patrick and Nico Hischier, while undoubtedly high-end forward prospects, aren’t being seen by anyone as Connor McDavid-type generational players, nor did most really see either of them on the level of an Auston Matthews-type cornerstone. If your expectations are set for Patrick to be one of the three to five best players in the league come 2022 or so, there’s a solid chance you’ll end up disappointed.

But in a year where so much went wrong for Patrick, it’s important to remember just how good of a prospect Patrick looked to be prior to his rough 2016-17. In his first full season in the WHL, Patrick topped a point-per-game with the Wheat Kings. Courtesy of prospect-stats.com, no WHL forward has done that during an age-15 season in the past decade. Then, in 2015-16, Patrick was fifth in the WHL in scoring, posting a point-per game mark (1.42, by way of 41 goals and 61 assists in 72 regular-season games) that also hasn’t been matched by any of his age-related peers in the past decade.

Those numbers are a bit deceiving, as Patrick — who missed the September 15 draft cutoff by just four days — has always been “old for his age” and as such comparing his age-16 season to other players’ age-16 season isn’t entirely fair to those other players. But even so, the point remains that Patrick has spent years posting the kinds of scoring numbers that you typically see from lottery-level talents in their draft seasons. There’s a reason why scouts were saying in 2015 that they “can’t believe we have to wait two years until this kid is draft-eligible”. (That’s a fantastic piece on Patrick from Kristina Rutherford at Sportsnet, by the way.)

Patrick’s injury-riddled performance in his draft year did, however, open up questions about what exactly he may be capable of at the game’s highest level. Compared at the top of the draft to Hischier — who stayed healthy all year, lit up the World Juniors with Switzerland, and was darting up and down the ice in the QMJHL while racking up the points — Patrick quickly came to be seen as the less flashy of the options, which to many observers could simply mean “less exciting”.

In a league where skill wins, we were seeing Hischier’s skill on the ice day in and day out, while we were seeing Patrick struggle to really step forward (figuratively and, in some on-ice cases, literally) throughout his draft year. With that came the questions on just how good of a prospect he really is, or whether he was deserving of the top spot. We know how that last question was ultimately answered, but the former is one that may remain open for a while.

Still, we’re talking about a guy who held his year-over-year production steady despite losing several key pieces from his Brandon team (Ivan Provorov says hello) and playing at what he deemed to be not nearly full-strength. If you’re concerned about his long-term health, sure, that’s a red flag. But the Flyers almost certainly knew as much about Patrick’s long-term health as any NHL team possibly could, and they went ahead and took him anways. That should give us some confidence that his top-end talent will surface in time in the NHL.

And lest we forget, there’s a lot of talent in the Winnipeg native. “Flashy” or not, there aren’t many real holes in Patrick’s game. While not a burner, he’s a solid skater, and he’s got the size (Patrick measured at 6’2” and 199 pounds at the combine) to complement that speed. He can both dish it and shoot it, and may already have one of the best shots on the Flyers. And he’s an extremely smart player in all facets of the game, one who can be trusted defensively, and one who should be able to play and mesh well with nearly any teammate.

If you’re expecting Nolan Patrick to single-handedly pull the Flyers deep into the playoffs several times over the next 15 years, the way that Connor McDavid looks ready to in Edmonton, you may want to recalibrate those expectations. But with everything else the Flyers have assembled over the past four years, Patrick can be the piece that anchors that group as it heads into the next decade. The live broadcast during the NHL draft likened him to Eric Staal, a fellow second overall pick who no one ever reasonably argued was the best player in the league but who was a no-doubt, do-it-all top-line center through his 20s.

That’s a lofty goal to set for Patrick, and not just because at age 21 Staal posted a 100-point season and won a Stanley Cup. But it does set a likely aspiration point for long-term projections of the Flyers’ new top prospect, and it’s certainly one that’s within his reach. Even with all of the injuries and questions that have popped up over the past year, few have doubted Patrick’s talent and fit at the NHL level. The Flyers picked up a chance at something really special this past draft, and that was probably worth all of the suffering that this past year brought. Now we can only hope that we’ll see Patrick on NHL ice, trying to realize his true-talent ceiling, sooner rather than later.

How We Voted For Nolan Patrick

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
2 1 2 5 2 4 4 3 5 5 5 2

How We Voted At No. 3

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Sean Couturier Shayne Gostisbehere Shayne Gostisbehere Shayne Gostisbehere Sean Couturier Shayne Gostisbehere Shayne Gostisbehere Nolan Patrick Shayne Gostisbehere Shayne Gostisbehere Shayne Gostisbehere Sean Couturier

How The Community Voted For Nolan Patrick

Ranking # of Votes
Ranking # of Votes
1 126
2 295
3 181
4 162
5 151
6 39
7 23
8 13
9 13
10 8
11 7
12 4
13 2
14 0
15 0
16 1
17 1
18 1
19 0
20 0
21 1
22 0
23 0
24 0
25 0
NR 6

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Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: