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Is Nolan Patrick going to be the key to the Flyers’ decision-making process this offseason?

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Of all of the questions coming for the Flyers’ front office this summer, none loom larger than that of what they can expect from their 20-year old center going forward.

2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series - Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On the Flyers’ second goal during Monday night’s win over Ottawa, Flyers center Nolan Patrick did a very cool thing, putting a near-no-look backhand pass right in front of the goal where Michael Raffl was able to easily deflect it home and give the Flyers a 2-1 lead.

The assist was Patrick’s 15th of the season. With 28 points in 61 games, he’s just two points short of where he ended his rookie season in 12 fewer games played. With 13 games left in the Flyers’ season, it seems likely that he’ll surpass that mark he set for himself last year.

Shortly after that pass and subsequent goal, noted very funny Twitter user Scott T. (known on Twitter as @NHLFlyera) posted the following tweet:

In what I believe will be the first in-depth Pokemon-related hockey discussion on this site in about three years, let’s unpack the above tweet for the unaware. On the left is a Pokemon called Magikarp. Magikarp is quite possibly the most useless Pokemon in existence — certainly the most useless of the game’s first generation. It is good at nothing and its primary mode of attack is called “Splash”, which does nothing at all. On the right, meanwhile, is Gyarados, which is what Magikarp evolves into at Level 20. (Which it gets to once you’ve put it at the top of your party and then swapped it out enough times that it could actually gain enough experience points to level up to Level 20 without actually having it attack anyone, but, conversation for another day.) Gyarados, unlike Magikarp, is the opposite of useless. It is, in fact, good. It is ... well, look at it. It’s terrifying. It’s a god damn sea dragon that obliterates everything in its path.

Armed with that knowledge, the above tweet makes sense. Patrick has, in both of his two NHL seasons, started out pretty slowly only to find another gear around the new year. Last season, Patrick suffered an injury in October, missed about a month, and didn’t really find his bearings again until around the All-Star break — at which point he played like a legitimate second-line center and helped keep the Flyers in a playoff spot. This season, Patrick missed brief chunks of time in October and again around the new year, but once again suffered through a pretty unimpressive stretch between mid-November and mid-January before coming on strong in recent weeks (17 points in his last 23 games), giving the Flyers a solid non-Sean Couturier option at center for really the first extended stretch of the season.

So. Is Nolan Patrick a useless, flopping fish, or is he a terrifying sea dragon that shoots devastating Hyper Beams at his opponents?

Now, you might currently be reading this and thinking, “that’s a ridiculous question; Nolan Patrick is a person, not a Pokemon. He probably can’t even learn Hyper Beam.” To which I would perhaps say in response, “well, while I like to believe that if Patrick worked hard enough he could do whatever he wanted, objectively, I am forced to admit that he is not a Pokemon, so you’ve made some fair points.”

But you know who can’t respond to that question that way? Chuck Fletcher, and whoever is going to be alongside him making the big decisions this coming summer. No one needs to have a better grasp on what Nolan Patrick is this summer than those guys do, because that’s maybe the biggest question that will shape the decisions that they make this summer.

Since the firing of Ron Hextall back in November, there are a number of key ideas and points that the Flyers’ front office — led at first by Paul Holmgren and Dave Scott and later by Fletcher upon his hiring — has either made clear or pretty strongly implied about the near future of the franchise:

  • This team needs to be better, particularly next year. The ship is pretty close to sailing on this season, but Fletcher repeatedly talked around the time of the trade deadline about how any potential move has to make the team better not just now, but next year.
  • Moves are going to be made. This was spelled out loud and clear right from the jump by Scott and Holmgren, who seemed to have lost the confidence in Hextall to make the moves necessary to push this team into contention. While the moves made by Fletcher so far have largely been on the margins, it seems reasonable to assume that he has something of a mandate to make big moves this summer that he feels will put this team closer to legitimate contention next year.
  • Very few people on this team are safe. Claude Giroux has a no-move clause (and also is a franchise legend who should have been nominated for the Hart Trophy last year), Sean Couturier is a first-line center in his prime on an incredibly team-friendly contract, and the fanbase would probably burn down the city if Carter Hart was traded. But other than those three, is anyone truly a lock to be on this team next year? Probably Ivan Provorov, sure. Is there anyone else that you really just can’t possibly see the Flyers trading? This team hasn’t won a playoff round since 2012, and the shipping off of Wayne Simmonds despite the locker room’s reported vocal pleas to keep him around suggest that Fletcher isn’t afraid to shake things up. And the fact that there are a lot of valuable pieces around right now speaks to the idea that one or two of them — in the right move, for the right player — may be expendable. There are very few people who should be considered truly unavailable, and it seems like the front office feels that way.

So in short, we know that changes should be coming, and these changes will require answering some tough questions. But while those questions span across the roster, at every position, some of them at least have fairly well-established starting point.

The Flyers have five top-9 wingers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Travis Konecny, James van Riemsdyk, and Oskar Lindblom; while three of those five are falling past their prime, you have to think that’s a group you can work with, at worst. They have a clear top-line center in Sean Couturier, who they can likely count on to keep doing what he’s been doing for two years now. They have a group of young defenders that, in theory, should be better next year — Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere’s struggles this year have been well-documented, but they’ve both got a track record suggesting that a bounce-back wouldn’t at all be surprising; meanwhile, Travis Sanheim has taken his newfound top-pair responsibility in stride, and early returns on Phil Myers are positive. And in net, we don’t know quite how good Carter Hart is just yet, but we can feel reasonably confident that he’s a solid NHL goalie if nothing else.

And then there’s the question of depth down the middle, which is why there may be no question that looms larger than this: what can the Flyers expect from Nolan Patrick going forward?

To answer that question, we first have to try and determine what Patrick is as an NHLer right now, and answering that question beyond just throwing up a shoulder shrug is tough. As we all know (and have discussed already in this piece), the split between what Patrick has been in the first half of his first two seasons and the second half of those same two seasons is quite stark. (Numbers c/o Natural Stat Trick; “First Half” was defined below as the time up to the early January bye week in 2017-18, and the time through the new year in 2018-19.)

Nolan Patrick, First Half vs. Second Half, 2017-19

Timeframe Games Played Points/Game 5v5 P/60 On-Ice CF% CF% Rel Most Common Linemates
Timeframe Games Played Points/Game 5v5 P/60 On-Ice CF% CF% Rel Most Common Linemates
2017-18 First Half 33 0.24 1.08 43.50% -6.90% Weise, Weal
2017-18 Second Half 40 0.55 1.76 52.70% 3.70% Voracek, Lindblom
2018-19 First Half 33 0.33 1.31 47.80% -5.30% Voracek, Lindblom
2018-19 Second Half 28 0.61 2.23 44.50% -1.90% Laughton, Simmonds

We’d love to be able to say that the Patrick we’ve seen since the new year is the guy that the Flyers will get going forward, and certainly, that Patrick has looked better by nearly any qualitative or quantitative test you can evaluate him by than the one we saw earlier in the season. (We’ll give Nolan a bit of a pass on the poor on-ice shot attempt numbers in recent weeks, as the entire team has been pretty bad on that front since Scott Gordon’s arrival.) Of course, most of us felt at this time last year that the Nolan Patrick we were seeing from January onward was the Patrick we’d get all of this season, and that obviously isn’t what transpired.

So let’s look big-picture here. On aggregate, the Patrick we’ve seen so far is probably a third-line center. He’s had swings below that and swings above that, but looking at everything that’s happened, that’s what he’s been. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, no. Is it maybe less then you’d have hoped for from a guy that was taken second overall and was a consensus number-one prospect for much of the time leading up to that draft? Probably.

Of course, that draft happened not even two years ago, and it’s worth stressing here — Patrick is 20 years old. It is very, very unlikely that what we have seen from him so far is a final product, and it may not even be close to one. It is reasonably safe to guess that Patrick will improve from where he is now over the next few seasons before he really starts to hit his prime as an NHLer.

Still, if this front office that is hellbent on being better next season is doing its job, it needs to be asking about the value of every player currently on the roster, and while the question of what Nolan Patrick may eventually be years down the road is a tantalizing one, the question of what he’s going to be in the much-more-near-future is the one that’s going to be at the forefront of their decision-making process soon.

So let’s hazard a guess at what exactly that may be. With the caveat that points are a wholly incomplete way of evaluating players, let’s briefly compare Patrick to some of his cohorts in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. Below, courtesy of hockey-reference.com, is every center since the full-season lockout who played at least 100 NHL games in his age-19 and age-20 seasons and posted between 0.4 and 0.5 points per game in that time. And to take a quick stab at what they did in the year or two following, we’ve included the same numbers for their age-21 and age-22 seasons.

NHL Centers, 100+ GP in Age-19/20 Seasons, Points/Game Between 0.4 and 0.5

Player Team TOI, Age 19-20 P/G, Age 19-20 TOI, Age 21-22 PPG, Age 21-22 TOI Change PPG Change
Player Team TOI, Age 19-20 P/G, Age 19-20 TOI, Age 21-22 PPG, Age 21-22 TOI Change PPG Change
Dylan Larkin DET, 2015-17 16.35 0.48 20.73 0.85 4.38 0.37
Mika Zibanejad OTT, 2012-14 14.05 0.48 17.11 0.60 3.06 0.12
Jordan Staal PIT, 2007-09 19.06 0.47 20.06 0.64 1.00 0.17
Josh Bailey NYI, 2008-10 15.3 0.43 16.44 0.40 1.14 -0.03
Bo Horvat VAN, 2014-16 14.93 0.43 18.61 0.66 3.68 0.23
Elias Lindholm CAR, 2013-15 15.63 0.43 18.14 0.55 2.51 0.12
Nolan Patrick PHI, 2017-19 14.19 0.43 ? ? ? ?

That’s not a bad list of players right there, and nearly all of them saw decent bumps in responsibility and production in the two seasons that followed their age-20 season. If we average that list out, those players scored about 0.16 more points per game (in about 2.6 more minutes per game) in the following seasons than they did during their initial seasons.

Applying the same increase in productivity to Patrick would put him around 0.59 points per game, which is right around what he’s been playing at since the new year this year and would put him in solid second-line center territory. Again, this is an overly simplistic means of projection, but it’s a decent starting point, and the specifics of the numbers are less important than the idea that a year or two from now Nolan Patrick will reliably be a solid second-line center, which on its face doesn’t sound like an outrageous thing to project.

The questions Chuck Fletcher and his team have to ask themselves, then, are numerous. Is Patrick an exception, someone that they think has an even bigger step forward in him next year than a brief look at the numbers may entail? If not, how does a solid second-line center fit for them in the next 1-2 years? Should he be written into that spot in the lineup in ink, or would the team be comfortable bringing in another center via trade or free agency and instead having Patrick going from being a solid second-line center to a really good third-line center? Is that something they’re willing to do, with Morgan Frost laying waste to the OHL and possibly getting a legitimate shot to make this team next year? How worried are they about potentially blocking a young guy like Patrick? Is that something they can even worry about if the goal is to win soon? Can they — as was proposed on a recent episode of BSH Radio — find a guy that can play second-line center better than Patrick until they’re confident Patrick is good for that role, and then move that guy to the wing?

There’s a lot that has to be determined across the roster, and big decisions have to be made regarding a number of guys currently on the roster. But the single biggest question in play right now is what this team’s depth at center should look like going forward, and the key to that lies with the guy wearing number 19. The Flyers are the ones on the ice with him every day, and they know what is and isn’t working with him better than we do. And whether or not they see a big leap forward coming for Patrick in the next couple of years is something that will drastically shape what they look to do this offseason.