Flip the calendar back to June, and there was a fierce debate as to which player should be selected No. 1 overall in the NHL draft: Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.
On Saturday night in New Jersey, the two centers will meet for the first time since that fateful night in Chicago, where Hischier was picked No. 1 by the Devils and Patrick went to the Flyers with the second overall selection.
Based on the early returns, the Devils got it right.
Hischier, who has much more speed and creativity than the powerful Patrick, is tied for No. 2 in scoring for the surprising Devils (22-11-8) with 26 points. He has eight goals and 18 assists.
Patrick has just two goals and six assists for the 19-15-8 Flyers. His off-season training was delayed because he underwent abdominal surgery, and he later missed nine games because of a concussion.
“With Nolan’s injury, he’s had a tougher time making a stronger impact,” said Craig Button, the former Calgary general manager who is a draft expert for TSN in Canada. “I think the way the Flyers are positioned and structured, they’re in a spot where they don’t have to rely on Nolan. They can be patient and let him get his toe in the water, so to speak.”
Patrick can “settle in and find his game and find his confidence,” Button added.
“When you add that he missed a lot of time last year” because of two injuries, “it’s not surprising that his first year here has been a struggle,” said Ryan Wagman, who heads the scouting at McKeen’s Hockey, a draft publication. “That doesn’t affect his long-term prognosis as a player. We still think he’s going to have a very, very good career. I think you’ll see a lot more from Patrick next year…and long-term, you’re going to see a first- or second-line center.”
Patrick downplayed his matchup against Hischier.
“I knew that was coming,” said Patrick, whose team returned from a four-day break and practiced in Voorhees late Friday afternoon. “It’s just another game, I think. The main focus is on winning. It’s not like I’m going out there and it’s me vs. him.”
Hischier, who chatted with Patrick on the phone Friday, is already a top-line center and is on the second power-play unit. He showed so much, in fact, that the Devils dealt high-scoring center Adam Henrique to Anaheim in late November for defenseman Sami Vatanen.
“He’s gone to New Jersey and really been a go-to guy,” Button said of Hischier. “I think that was a significant reason they traded Adam Henrique. They were confident Nico could handle things after seeing him through the first quarter of the season. He’s gotten the opportunity and taken advantage of it.”
Button believes that Patrick, now centering the third line, will be an impact player in time, but that his concussion set him back.
“You’ve never played in the NHL, and then you’re finding your way. You’re adjusting to the league and, boom, you’re out for an extended period of time,” Button said “Well, the league is revving up, and now you’re injected back into the lineup. You’re still learning. You’re still trying to figure it out, but now [the pace] is at a higher level. It’s like jumping off a treadmill when it’s going 4 miles an hour, and now you’re jumping back on when it’s going 8 miles an hour.”
Button said that Patrick has excellent hockey sense, and that while the points have not been coming, he is doing other things on the ice that will make him a very good player down the road.
He noted that Joe Thornton had three goals and four assists in 55 games during his rookie season before scoring more than 20 goals (including 36- and 37-goal seasons) for 11 straight years, starting with his third season.
“When I watch Nolan play, I believe the scoring and the productivity will come,” Button said. “I don’t have any question that he will be a real strong player. You have to be patient. Every player doesn’t progress at the same rate.”
That said, Button added that if he were coach Dave Hakstol or general manager Ron Hextall, he would tell Patrick to be more aggressive in the offensive end.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, listen, you’re not just here to play good without the puck. You can produce offensively and take a little bit more initiative,’ ” Button said.
Shayne Gostisbehere missed practice with an illness but will probably play Saturday. … As expected, scrappy winger Tyrell Goulbourne was recalled from the Phantoms….The Flyers have a three-game winning streak, while the Devils are on a 0-2-3 skid.