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Chronicling Nolan Patrick’s second act surge

Lots to like here, folks

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Close your eyes—wait no. Not actually. I didn’t mean that. Figuratively. Close your eyes figuratively but keep reading what I’m saying.

Think back. It’s about 10pm on April 29th. It’s no usual Saturday night. Twitter is on fire. The Flyers have just made a historic jump in the draft lottery. Judging by the odds heading into the night, it was thought they would, most likely, be picking 13th. Now, they’re picking second.

Excitement takes over the city as we move into weeks of Nico vs. Nolan debate. We’re dipping into stats. We’re watching the combine. We’re digging through scouting reports. We’re even judging hair as the big day draws nearer still.

It’s a buzz through the city. It’s an electric current jumping straight through the airwaves. And it’s the big day and, well, you know the rest…

So, in the end, it was Nolan (but this is only just the start of the story).

We might recall the drama that followed--news of surgery just before the draft that would sideline him for development camp. The face infection that delayed his return even further. But the boy is resilient, and summer finally saw his debut on Flyers ice. And we were off to the races.

The start of training camp feels like a lifetime ago, in a lot of ways. Claude Giroux was still a center. There were still questions on Sean Couturier’s ceiling. Heck, we still thought Jori Lehtera’s St. Louis numbers might be sustainable. The expectations for the season were high. On paper, the Flyers stood to make a big step forward, and at the center of it? Philadelphia’s newest darling, looking to make the team out of camp.

And, after putting up a solid preseason run and doing just that, hope alighted, and they were well near astronomical. But what exactly were we expecting from our former second overall pick? Where were those expectations coming from?

Part of these high hopes stretch all the way back to his 2015-16 season, when he scored 102 points as an underager and helped to lead his team to a WHL title, and turned a lot of heads in the process. Eyes were peeled, figuring he must be primed to make an even bigger splash in his draft year. But, rather, what happened was something of a hiccup.

In his draft season, Patrick spent some time out with the core muscle injury that had been plaguing him, and recovering from the subsequent surgery that was meant to correct it. As such, he was only able to play 33 games in the 2016-17 season, but during this time, he was still able to put up 20 goals and 26 assists for 46 total points (a 1.39 points per game pace).

As such, the mentality of “this year’s the year,” the assurance of a bounce-back season, in whatever the context, crept up with force. The player who scored 102 points at just 17 years old was sure to make a triumphant return. Right?

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Well, he was certainly expected to. His over/under in our own BSH pre-season predictions game was set at 37.5 points, in which six out of eight respondents projected him to come close to or exceed that figure. So too was the feeling on the pre- and early-season podcast, where the crew (with the exception of Charlie, who was less optimistic) thought he stood to crack 40 points this season, if given the proper context. So, given those high hopes (perhaps too high, even) the feeling of soft-disappointment that lingered around the completion of the first third or so of the season is understandable.

But to dip into some more numbers, we could use his scoring metrics from his final season in Brandon to make another projection. Given those 20 goals and 46 points from his draft year, we can adjust for age and league quality, and come to a projection of 11.75 goals and 27.01 points in 73 regular season NHL games (73 being what he is on pace to complete, barring further time out). And, of course, it should be noted that Patrick was still playing injured, not at 100 percent--as he noted-- in that final season, which may have impacted the numbers, and as such this particular projection, but we’ll at least use what we have access to.

So if we adjust our expectation to something closer to that figure of 12 goals (to round up) and 27 points, how’s he doing? Looking at the numbers from the season so far, he’s on pace for 11.47 goals and 27.11 points in his 73 regular season games, which is right about what we could have expected, given those projections. But this wasn’t always the case--these numbers (and our hopes) have been bolstered by an uptick in production through this second half of the season.

So now it seems time that we ask ourselves a series of questions: how did we get here? What punctuated this turnaround? What’s working? What isn’t? And, fortunately for you all, because I am very smart, I have for you all of the answers (yes, really!). Let’s get into it.

A tale of two halves (some numbers)

Did you feel like you’ve had your fill of numbers after that last section? (I hope not? There weren’t that many?) But either way, if you had, you’re out of luck. We’ve got some more numbers for you here. But it’s gonna be fine.

Nolan Patrick: 2017-18

GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
70 11 26 155 106 45

Looking at Patrick’s full season numbers, they tell something of a lukewarm story. His figures, as listed above, are hardly scoffable, are respectable enough on their own. Not stellar, but fine. However, when considered relative to his teammates, they start to lose a bit of luster. For example, his iCF of 153 puts him at 6th among 14 forwards who have played 200 or more minutes at 5-on-5—a perfectly respectable ranking. But, in these combined season metrics, he isn’t able to crack the top ranks, the top five, in any but iSCF. Which, on the surface, feels, if not a cause for full concern, then a bit of trepidation.

Nolan Patrick: Oct. 3, 2017 - Jan. 6, 2018

GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
32 2 8 50 32 10

But what happens when we split these numbers up? When isolating his numbers from before January 6th--that is, after the Flyers played their 41st game, reaching the midpoint of their season--we see them take an even sharper dip. His iCF that we mentioned earlier dips to 50, and also leaves him 12th among the 13 Flyers forwards who have played 200 or more minutes. Indeed, it puts him in the bottom 20th percentile (512th out of 608) of players in the league who played 200 or more minutes during that time. So, in short, Patrick was certainly struggling, by the numbers, during that first half of the season. But the new year saw something of a turnaround.

Nolan Patrick: Jan. 6, 2018 - Present

GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
GP Goals Points iCF iSCF iHDCF
39 9 18 107 75 35

We see, then, the second half of the season forms a very different narrative for Patrick. Rather than showing a rookie continue to struggle to get settled and produce at the NHL level, we see a top-six forward producing well relative to his teammates. Since January 6th, Patrick has made a jump up, sitting in the top five among Flyers forwards in iCF and iSCF, and top three in iHDCF, producing right along the lines of top-liners like Couturier, Giroux, and Konecny, trailing them by a not too large margin. His results on the scoresheet, too, have seen an uptick--where he only registered two goals through his first 32 games, in his last 39 games, he’s registered nine (and counting!). And this isn’t just a matter as simple as a turn in luck, not entirely, but a testament to the work he’s been putting in of late.

Shots and all (some more numbers)

So what, then, is behind this increase in Patrick’s iCF and iSCF metrics? In part, the answer comes with a look at the frequency at which he was shooting. Through his first 32 games, Patrick was averaging just over a shot per game, recording 35 unblocked shots at 5-on-5 over that period. This was the second fewest among forwards, ahead of only Lehtera, who put up 13 shots in 23 games. During this time, he was shooting at a meager 5.88 percent, but saw this percentage make a nice little jump when, you guessed it, he started shooting more. In his last 39 games, Patrick has recorded 94 unblocked shots, and has seen his SH% increase 9.48 percent. When he was once towards the bottom of the ranking in terms of quantity of shots, he is now creeping up towards the top, behind just Konecny, Simmonds, and Couturier. And the scoresheet speaks to that.

via hockeyviz

But the results we’re seeing aren’t just a byproduct of an uptick in frequency of shooting, not exclusively. Rather, they can be equally attributed to the quality of shots he has been generating. Of those 94 unblocked shots produced since January 6th, 35 of them (37.23 percent) have been coming from high-danger areas, making him the second highest producer of high danger chances, behind just Konecny. So, given this increased emphasis on both shooting more and creating more quality chances, the reflective increase in scoring makes sense.

But so too are these results indicative of a good shot for Patrick. At present, he’s shooting at 9.48 percent, just about league average, and has hovered around this mark for much of the back half of the season. What’s the secret? Patrick notes that while “it’s something I need to focus on in the summer… I think my release is really good, and [I] can beat goalies with that, but power’s something I need to work on.” And for a rookie, this seems a high mark for praise, figuring out NHL goaltenders after just half of a season spent in the league. (For comparison, Travis Konecny, last season’s rookie forward, was shooting at just 5.31 percent in his 70 games played during his rookie season). After shooting at just 5.88 percent through his first 32 games, it seems Patrick has taken a step up, learning the tricks that will and will not work on NHL goaltenders, making use of that quick release, and reaping the benefits.

Clicking and climbing

But we would be remiss if we left our analysis here, ignoring the ways in which context has equally well served Patrick’s game lately.

via hockeyviz

Through the early part of the season, Patrick’s struggle wasn’t self contained, as it seeped into his surroundings and each of the lines he was placed on during this time found difficulty in producing. And it would be easy to say that linemates who just weren’t up to snuff were the reason for this slow start, were it not for the fact that, at the mid-season point, the line of Patrick, Wayne Simmonds, and Jordan Weal that had also underperformed in an admittedly small sample in the earlier point in the season suddenly started to work. So maybe it’s more an issue of problems feeding problems—Patrick’s trouble in driving play compounding, for example, Konecny’s slow start, and Dale Weise’s seeming reticence to shoot the puck (as he was rolling at an average clip of just 1.24 unblocked shots per game in his first 34) But, the good news is this pattern didn’t hold.

Health and chemistry coalesced in the new year, as the middle of January saw the Weal-Patrick-Simmonds line reunited and looking markedly more dynamic than in their pre- and early-season audition. When asked about his own increased pace around this time, Patrick explained, “I think it’s confidence, and you know, my body’s feeling really good. I feel like I’ve been supporting the puck better, playing faster, and I know my linemates will find me if I’m coming through the middle with speed,” extending a nod also to his new linemates whose styles of play were supporting his own uptick.

This uptick, this growth, has continued to be pushed as his line was shuffled further, from switching Weal out for Voracek, until arriving at the final arrangement, finding Voracek and Oskar Lindblom on his wings, which continues to click and produce as time goes on. Indeed, this line has proved to be, in some ways, close to the Flyers’ most consistent since their configuration. Over their 20 games together, the line has averaged an adjusted 55.64 CF% and 58.12 HDCF% at 5-on-5. This leaves them just trailing behind the top line in Corsi--as they put up an adjusted 56.68 CF%--but still holding an edge over their 47.54 HDCF%.

And it’s this emphasis on generating high danger chances that has served this line particularly well. It’s a precursor to future positive results, but also just a good stylistic fit. Patrick and Lindblom seem to have a nose for finding each other in just the right spot, in generating chances from below the red line and in the crease, and the results are starting to follow. Creating chances from this area is a familiar one for Patrick, “something I’ve been confident with,” he says, and one he feels is being well supported by his linemates: “when you play with good players, you just have to get there and they’ll find you.”

Calgary Flames v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Surging

And similar contextual benefits are being seen with regards to Patrick’s special teams time. Still held off the penalty kill, the change came with his power play deployment—late February saw him getting some time on the first unit, with Simmonds sidelined with an upper body injury. The jump up with the new personnel, to the unit that has found greater success so far this season seems, ostensibly, an aid to production, but so too was the change in position.

Before this promotion, Patrick served as the quarterback to the second unit, stationed along the half-wall, but on the top unit, he filled in directly for Simmonds, and was slotted in at the net-front. There was a level of familiarity there, that made the transition more or less seamless, as he spent a bit of time playing in this position in his rookie year in Brandon. But the role itself has given him more space to work with, an opportunity to simplify and be a little more opportunistic, capitalizing on the chances that present themselves. He notes, “I think there’s a little less pressure, you don’t have the puck on your stick as much, and I think my shot’s something that I need to improve on, and it’s kind of nice for me to be there and not trying to beat goalies with my shot.”

The results speak for themselves: to the tune of three power play goals in seven games while on PP1. And not only has this helped give his scoring pace a nice little bump, but it also helped inject a bit of life into a unit that had otherwise begun to sag. So the symbiosis worked as long as the arrangement held, until Simmonds made his return against the Penguins and Patrick returned to the second unit. PP2 remains lagging behind in production, but has shown a bit of promise, of late. They’re finding greater ease getting set up in the zone, and are creeping up on tapping into the potential its components offer.

Feeling himself

But, by now, we’ve spent a lot of time dipping into the numbers and looking at the micro level of the turnaround, but perhaps it’s time to pull back, widen the angle, and see what Patrick is privileging in this shift, himself.

Since around mid-January, he’s noted that he’s gotten back to “feeling himself,” seeing himself getting more settled, and returning to something of older or truer form. When I asked him about this, he explained, “I was getting confident and comfortable, that was probably the main two things. My skating felt like it got better, but confidence was probably the biggest thing.” And the results have shown this—as his confidence and physical strength build, we’re seeing him skating faster, holding stronger on the puck, winning more battles along the boards, and simply looking sharper.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

And while, of course, we’ve been very focused on the numbers so far, and it’s difficult to quantify the direct impact of confidence, maybe this doesn’t even really matter. Feeling better, looking better, it’s all intertwined. Amassing lessons learned and increasing physical strength and endurance with time can do a world of good, it seems. And if Patrick says it’s working, who are we to argue?

To tie this up with a bow...

And now that we’ve posed all these thoughts, these possibilities, to answer our earlier queries, let’s circle back to them. So, with all this said, what’s the deal here? New year, new me? Did Dave Hakstol flip the on switch that was stuck at the bottom of the bag of stuff that came with Patrick from Brandon? Did he encounter a wizard over the Christmas holiday that gifted unto him the power to live up to and beyond the potential the internet dwellers have been seeing… (I don’t know anything about Canada).

Probably not.

More likely, what we’re looking at is a perfect storm of all of the requisite elements finally starting to click. It took a meeting of health, confidence, proper adjustment, all of those things we detailed above to punctuate what appeared to be a full 180 of Patrick turning into the player that folks had been expecting since the draft. And maybe it was there all along. Maybe it just needed some coaxing. But the fact remains that the shift has been made, and he’s showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The mix has been made, the formula set, and now that we’re through thinking very hard about it, we can just enjoy the rest of this stretch, being along for the ride.

All stats and graphics via Corsica.Hockey, Elite Prospects, HockeyViz, Natural Stat Trick

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