Despite injury concerns, Nolan Patrick fitting right in with the Philadelphia Flyers

ByDave Caldwell ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Nolan Patrick, a big and elite 19-year-old center from Winnipeg was the top draft choice of the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL draft in June, but he still is required to stay a little longer and pick up the pucks with the other rookies after practice.

The Flyers like to do things a certain way, and Patrick is happy to follow protocol. To play in a city with a "really passionate" hockey fans, as Patrick put it recently, is "exciting." He is anxious to show what he can do on both offense and defense in the NHL.

But one question lingers.

Asked how he was doing physically, Patrick quickly replied, "I feel great -- 100 percent."

It is not the kind of question that most 19-year-old rookies have to handle so early in the season, but Patrick is not typical. Patrick, then the captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings, had two sports hernias last season, the second of which required surgery before he was drafted.

Patrick was rated as the top North American prospect entering the draft, with Nico Hischier, a lighter but speedier center from Switzerland who had played last year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, rated second. But the New Jersey Devils took Hischier first, leaving Patrick to the Flyers.

When asked how he was recovering and proceeding from the surgery, Patrick said, "I'm not really supposed to comment on that much."

He did say that he did not regard the Devils' drafting of Hischier as a slight. Patrick was passed up by only one team, so it was not as if his stock plummeted. Patrick is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds; Hischier is 6-foot-1 but 175 pounds. Ray Shero, the Devils' general manager, said Hischier fit into a Devils' attack predicated on bursts of speed. The Flyers grind more.

"I thought I'd go where I'd fit in, and that was about it," Patrick said. "It's not like I wanted to go No. 1. The operatives in Jersey wanted their guy, and I was happy to end up here."

He shrugged, then said, "We're completely different players. I don't know if you can really compare us. It really just depends [on] what you want."

Patrick has a goal and two assists in an average of 13 minutes, 29 seconds over eight games. The Flyers, who play Tuesday night, are 5-3-0. They missed the playoffs last season.Patrick is tied for eighth in scoring on the Flyers. Hischier, who is fourth in Devils scoring, has seven points in seven games, but is playing three more minutes a game than Patrick because of injuries to teammates. The Devils are 6-2-0 and are in first in the Metropolitan; the Flyers are third.

Ron Hextall, the Flyers general manager, said Patrick stayed in Philadelphia over the summer and worked with Jim McCrossin, the team's trainer, on a rehabilitation program. Patrick stayed off the ice and watched a lot of film at a development camp in July.

"In a nutshell, it is all about being a pro," Hextall said at a news conference at the time. "It's nutrition, it's the importance of rest and sleep and parts of recovery, the importance of being at the rink early, getting your stretching in. Obviously, the work ethic for us is a big thing. ... [I]t is the person, the character that is going to dictate whether that player hits the ceiling or not."

When the Flyers' training camp opened in September, Patrick was deemed ready to go. It became apparent quickly to the veterans that Patrick was not just talented, but had a knack for where to be.

"He was one step ahead -- just one play ahead, smarter than the other guys, knew what he had to do before even getting the puck," said Sean Couturier, the Flyers top-line center. "I think that's a great quality to have coming into the league. The speed's faster, and you're thinking ahead, so that's good. He has a great future for sure.

"Patty's been fitting really well in our organization. I think with [Hextall's] drafting the last few years, he's been relying a lot on smart guys who are reliable on both sides of the puck. Patty's one of those guys. He's great offensively, has great skills, but he's also aware of his defense, which is pretty impressive for a young guy like that.

"The game's so tight that you know you're not going to score every night, but you've got to help your team win in other areas. If you're reliable defensively, the coach can just send you out there at any time, and if you're not, you're a question mark, and you're always trying to gain gaining confidence of the coach."

The Flyers opened their season with a rugged four-game road trip to the West Coast but won twice, once in overtime. Patrick scored his first NHL goal. They returned for their home opener and blasted the Washington Capitals, 8-2. Patrick won 71 percent of his faceoffs.

"He continues to be a confident player," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "He's done a very good job for us. He's continually adding to his game. As you see him go through a number of firsts here, he's definitely not a guy who is wowed by anything. He's very calm, very composed -- on the ice and off the ice. He's done a good job from Day 1 of training camp with and without the puck. Every day, we're seeing more and more from him offensively."

Patrick's father, Steve, a right winger, scored 40 goals for three teams in 250 NHL games, and his uncle, James, a defenseman, scored 149 goals for four teams in 1,280 NHL games. Nolan Patrick's two sisters also play hockey.

Patrick has compared his style of play with that of Anze Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings center. Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, wrote in an email to that Patrick was the No. 1 prospect, in part because more about him was known than Hischier, whose stock rose dramatically during his season in Halifax after Patrick was injured.

"Nolan has a very high hockey IQ and is capable of playing the game with a maturity beyond his years -- his game, decisions and skills with the puck allow him to make NHL plays at NHL speed," Marr wrote. "He is able to be an impactful player because he always plays the game with his feet moving and head up, allowing him to be in the right place at the right time to contribute offensively.

"What set him apart in his draft class was his physical assets and play without the puck -- Nolan knows how to utilize his size and strength to advantage on plays, and he understands game situations to make smart, responsible choices in order to make the play."

Hakstol put it more simply: "He's a young player, but you'd never know it by watching him out there on the ice."

Patrick is not regarding his first 82-game regular season as a daunting challenge, saying, "It's only 10 more than my junior league." Nothing has surprised him; the game is faster and more physical than it was in junior, of course, but he thinks he can keep up on both fronts.

"I don't really set any goals for myself," he said. "It's just keeping getting better every day and contribute as much as I can."

And, at least so far, he is -- and he is healthy, too.