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Nolan Patrick is not a bust

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After another slow start for the young center, Nolan Patrick is trending up once again. Can he prove capable of maintaining his improved play?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-18 season was a tumultuous ride for your Philadelphia Flyers. The team saw more than its fair share of erratic stretches of play that ultimately resulted in a just-decent-enough record to push this club into the postseason. The same can be said about one young, (potentially-ish) budding star who is currently holding the reigns of the second line center position for the Orange and Black. Yes, we are here to talk about Nolan Patrick, and we are going to unpack why he was the right choice in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

First, a preface, because I know what you’re all thinking. Elias Pettersson is very, very good. He has 19 points in his first 17 National Hockey League games, but when we take a look back at the time of the draft, most analysts had Pettersson ranked outside of the top five. Hindsight is a pain and often make drafts the painful subject of revisionist history, but we have to put ourselves back into the moments leading up to that draft in which there were two top prospects: Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick.

Our rosey-cheeked 20-year old center had a heck of a time last season finding his footing, but was eventually able to turn it around both visually and statistically. I wrote about this during the off-season and what we might be able to expect from Patrick for the 2018-19 campaign based on the turnaround we saw, and despite a slow start to the season, Nolan is actually exceeding expectations. Yes, it was quite a scary start the season for Patrick and the eye test was pretty bad. However, we have to couple that with the fact that the entire team was off to a scary start, so singling out Patrick and labeling him a bust just doesn’t seem very fair. Considering Patrick has been prone to slow starts even since his junior career began in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings, maybe a little dose of patience is necessary.

By the numbers

So, just how bad was the slow start? Well, Patrick didn’t post a single point at even strength or on the power play in the Flyers’ first four games. His adjusted Corsi-For percentage was an abysmal 42.77, but his Goals-For percentage and Expected Goals-For percentage were both on the plus side, with a 50.24 and 57.7 respectively. So, while Patrick was driving a line that was losing the play-driving battle, he was at least part of creating enough high-danger chances to boost his Expected Goals numbers, so a turnaround could have been predicted.

Not long into the fourth game of the season, Patrick exited the first period with an upper-body injury that would sideline him for 10 days. After a frustrating start for both Patrick and the team, questions began circling the spheres of Flyers nation about just how good this kid really could be. I will admit that I, too, began questioning if Patrick really has what it takes to rise to the level we need him to play at in order for this team to get over the hump. The eye test wasn’t great, as he looked more like the 2017-18 first half Patrick that struggled to find his way on the ice, but another injury and time to clear his mind may have been just what the doctor ordered.

Patrick re-entered the lineup on October 20, 2018 to face off against Nico Hischier and the New Jersey Devils, during which he scored his first goal of the season:

Patrick does what he does best here. He uses his vision and hockey sense to get to an open area for the easy tap-in goal right on Keith Kinkaid’s doorstep. The icing on the cake here is Patrick taking advantage of Nico Hischier watching the puck as he’s trailing the play. He fails to track Patrick until it’s far too late, giving Nolan a clear path to the front of the net. This play seemed to spark something in Patrick, leading to a turnaround that helped the Flyers get things back on track.

Since returning to the lineup, Patrick has potted four 5-on-5 goals and assisted on another three, totaling seven points in 13 games. He has another two powerplay points to add to that total, giving him nine points in those 13 games. Going a little deeper, Patrick bumped his adjusted Corsi-For percentage up to a 49.06 while keeping his Goals-For and Expected Goals-For percentage well above a 50 (58.94 and 57.88, respectively). While I would still like to see his line drive play more and win the Corsi battle, it is nice to see that he is trending in the right direction.

From a pure points-based analysis, Patrick is doing quite well. During the second half of last season, Nolan posted a 1.78 Points-Per-60 at 5-on-5 hockey. Since returning from injury, his Points-Per-60 is at a 2.43, which is good for third on the team among forwards who have played in more than two games. Not only that, but since Patrick’s return, Oskar Lindblom is the most productive Flyers forward at even strength scoring relative to his usage with a 2.78 P/60.

Including the slow start, Patrick is scoring at a 2.01 P/60 rate with a 47.93 Corsi-For percentage, 50.24 Goals-For percentage, and 57.7 Expected Goals-For percentage. This is also including the last three games in which the Flyers - and Patrick - have struggled to produce. Outside of a 4-goal outburst in the third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning in their most recent game, the Flyers have managed to score just two goals against their opponents. However, the eye test and feeling behind this team is quite different from the rough start to the season. They are creating chances, getting to high-danger scoring areas, and are one of the better teams in the league at 5-on-5 play.

Far from absolved

Here’s the thing that worries me... It’s great that Patrick has seemingly turned it around again and is producing at an even greater rate than he did during the second half of last year. However, I know - and I think we all do deep down inside the pits of our souls - that he still has at least one more gear to his game that he hasn’t yet been able to shift into. If this team is going to take it to the next level and be an actual Stanley Cup contender, Nolan Patrick needs to get into that gear. We need to see him not just take over a shift, but take over a game. We need to see him produce consistently so pressure can be removed from the top line absolutely having to produce in order to win games.

We’ve seen glimpses and flashes here and there of Patrick’s ability to do this, but it needs to happen more consistently and not just at even strength. He needs to be a force at both 5-on-5 hockey and on the powerplay. Can you imagine this team if the second line was producing more consistently and they actually had a decent second powerplay unit? (Yes, I know, the penalty kill. Don’t get me started.) That responsibility falls on Patrick. He has the skills, ability, and hockey IQ to make it happen, but we need to see it for more than 5- or 6-game stretches. Now, let’s see what he can do to help this team out of their recent 3-game skid tonight when they face a young, fast, tough opponent in the Buffalo Sabres who have won six games in a row.

Let’s go Flyers (and also Nolan)!

All stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey