(Courtesy of Jason Bell, Free Press / Image courtesy of Getty Images) — Nolan Patrick was a markedly different player by the time Philadelphia’s terrific 2017-18 regular season and brief playoff appearance concluded than the apprehensive teen who debuted in the NHL about six months earlier.
Stronger, faster and noticeably more confident after Christmas, the Flyers’ young centre gained the trust of head coach Dave Hakstol and was justly rewarded with crucial top-six minutes for the Metropolitan Division squad.
In short, Patrick asserted himself as the smart, skilled performer the organization knew he’d be when it nabbed him with the second-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in Chicago. His puck-possession numbers drastically improved, and points started piling up for the gifted former Brandon Wheat Kings star, the son of ex-NHLer Steve Patrick.
Now, the Winnipegger, set to turn 20 next month, says he’s ready to build on the success he generated during the second half of his rookie campaign.
And his first healthy off-season since 2015 will, undoubtedly, help the cause.
“It’s been a fun summer. Obviously, it’s been the first time in a few years where I could actually train how I wanted to and not have to skip out on things because of how my body was feeling,” Patrick said earlier this week after a 90-minute skate at the Bell MTS Iceplex with about 15 NHL pros and prospects with Manitoba roots, including Flyers teammate Dale Weise.
He ran drills wearing a borrowed black Winnipeg Jets development-camp jersey with traditional Broad Street Bullies orange socks. (Feel free, Jets fans, to daydream about the prospect of the home-grown talent flanked by Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers for a decade or so, then let it go.)
“I came out of the season pretty healthy but, obviously, I was disappointed with how the season ended,” Patrick added. “It was nice to have a full summer to get ready for training camp.”
The Flyers (42-26-14) were bounced in six games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the post-season.
Patrick was always considered a can’t-miss kid, and was long projected as the 2017 draft’s No.1 pick. But he struggled with a recurring abdominal muscle injury during his final Western Hockey League season that required a second surgery just before the June event in Chicago, perhaps swaying the New Jersey Devils to go with dynamic forward Nico Hischier with the first overall selection, instead.
Possessing the second pick, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall pounced on Patrick, who rehabbed all summer and went on to win a job with the team after an impressive training camp. But he sputtered out of the gate, scoring just once and setting up two others through the first nine games in October before getting hurt at home against Anaheim. Ducks forward Chris Wagner delivered a heavy check along the boards, and Patrick’s head snapped dangerously into the glass.
He left the ice with a likely concussion, although the club wouldn’t divulge the seriousness of the injury. He didn’t play again — a nine-game absence — until a Nov. 16 homecoming against the Jets at Bell MTS Place.
And, for the next six weeks, he was relegated to the Flyers’ bottom trio, getting less than 10 minutes a game most nights. By Jan. 1, he had a paltry two goals and five assists.
Cue the impressive turnaround — a likely sign of things to come for Patrick, who’s listed at 6-2, 200 pounds.
When the calendar flipped to 2018, Philly fans began to see his intensity and strength along the wall, the trademark slick playmaking and a wicked one-timer that had tormented WHL goalies.
Hakstol started sending him over the boards with wingers Wayne Simmonds and Jordan Weal on the third line, and then later with Simmonds and Jakub Voracek as Philly’s second middle-man behind Sean Couturier.
He was also granted plenty of opportunities to shine on the power play.
Patrick, who finished with 13 goals and 30 points (10G, 11A in his final 33 games), said several factors went into his emergence as a premier forward, topped by his drive to dispel any suggestion the Flyers had made a mistake at the draft table.
“It was a mix of things. I think my body starting feeling better and I started getting more confident, which helped me play better, and that brought more opportunities. It was kind of a series of all those things,” he said. “I’m happy with how it went. I wasn’t spoon-fed when I got there. I had to work for things and really work my way up, and I think it helped me improve throughout the year.”
Heading into training camp , the Flyers look dangerous up front with veterans such as Couturier, Voracek, Simmonds, Claude Giroux — and the addition of James van Riemsdyk — and blossoming youngsters like Patrick and Travis Konecny, who had 24 goals in his sophomore season.
Patrick knows exactly where he should slot in.
“That’s my goal, to fill that second hole behind (Couturier) there. I played a lot of hockey last year in that (second-line centre) spot and had a blast doing it. It was lots of fun,” he said. “Having that chance to play with (Voracek) makes it pretty easy on me. He’s an unbelievable player and an even better guy off the ice to me. And if we had a chance to have (van Riemsdyk) with us, too, it’d be lots of fun.
“Obviously, you’re more confident because you know everyone around the organization, you know all the players, but not much changes for me. I’m going to go there and try to keep improving and try to play the best hockey I can and help the team win. That’s my main goal, so I’m looking forward to getting down there.”
Patrick, who is scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania today, said much of his summer on-ice workouts have been directed at generating increased foot speed.
“I focused on my speed a lot, and tried to get more explosive and quicker. At this time of year, the skates start to pick up in speed and you don’t want to be left behind,” he said. “You’re trying to touch up all the things you’re already confident in, and work a little harder on things you need to work on.”
The Flyers, like their burgeoning star, had a turbulent start to the 2017-18 season. They went 10 games without a victory from Nov. 11 to Dec. 5 before orchestrating a dramatic reversal of fortune, winning seven of their next eight. Eventually, they finished third in the division, but couldn’t handle the Penguins in the playoffs.
Patrick said the sour taste of the quick exit hasn’t completely vanished.
“I don’t think anyone was satisfied with how the year ended. I think everyone’s pretty hungry. We had a pretty good team last year, and I think we kind of put ourselves in a hole with a 10-game losing streak and then we turned it around and climbed back and made a push,” he said.
“We showed how good we can be. And then, with adding those big pieces this summer (van Riemsdyk, who scored a career-high 36 goals with Toronto last season, and veteran right-shot blue-liner Christian Folin), everyone’s excited to get back at it.”