It’s virtually a straight line, the 1,297 miles that separate Winnipeg from Dallas, site of this year’s NHL draft — a 21-hour trip by car, about three hours by plane.
It’s a blink of an eye, though, for Nolan Patrick, last year’s odds-on choice as the draft’s first pick until a recurring core muscle injury gave the New Jersey Devils cold feet, allowing him to slip to the Flyers as the second pick overall.
“Seems like it was yesterday, honestly,’’ Patrick was saying from his Winnipeg home the other day.
Which is odd, since Patrick’s rookie season with the Flyers was anything but a breeze. For the first two months, in fact, as top pick Nico Hischier pumped in goals and ascended to New Jersey’s first line while the surprising Devils ascended to first place in the Metropolitan Division, the choice appeared prescient.
Opting last June to both clean up his previous core muscle surgery and repair new damage incurred from trying to play through that, Patrick struggled. Mightily. After a disappointing final season in juniors, he had spent his summer rehabbing the injury rather than strengthening his 18-year-old body for the rigors that lay ahead.
The immediate result was hard to watch. He worked hard just to skate, especially those first few strides from a still position. Known for his work along the boards, he constantly lost battles there and was slow to react, making him susceptible to big hits from grown men. One such player was Anaheim’s Chris Wagner, who crumpled Patrick in the corner during an Oct. 24 game at the Wells Fargo Center.
Some of this was due to the surgery, he thinks now. But some of it also traces to trying to play injured the season before, he said, and the adjustments both physically and mentally he had to make to do so.
“Everyone always thinks they can play through that and I thought I could play through it too,’’ he said. “It really affects your game. It’s a tough thing to play through. You see guys who try to do it for a whole season and – well it’s just a tough thing to play through.’’
Patrick learned this by trying. But he also learned by listening to Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere describe their struggles recovering from similar – although not identical – injuries the season before. Both had surgeries done by William Meyers, the Philadelphia surgeon who has repaired countless famous athletes such as Donovan McNabb, Jason Kelce, and Danny Briere, and is recognized as the foremost authority on the procedure.
Meyers, in fact, hates the term “sports hernia’’ because it is inaccurate to the point of misleading. Literally hundreds of connective muscle tissues extend from hip to hip along the pelvis, so no two of his surgeries are alike. What is similar – but again, not identical — is the unavoidable ordeal of strengthening the area after that muscle has been repaired and/or reattached.
“Your mind wants to play through it, but your body just can’t keep up,’’ said Patrick. “I think after you get it done, you need to have time to get back to the gym and get strong again. But it’s a tough thing to play through.’’
Gostisbehere, 25, looked like his old self by the second half of last year. Giroux, 30, needed a full season, but his 102-point Hart Trophy-worthy season quieted all the discourse over whether he could ever return to an elite level.
Patrick left the ice that night and did not return until his mid-November homecoming in Winnipeg, a nine-game absence that did nothing to refute the contention he is injury- prone. The down time only played on his confidence further, and when the new year rolled around, it was hard to conclude anything but what seemed obvious:
The bullet the Devils dodged had hit the Flyers in the heart.
On Jan.6, Patrick had two goals and six assists. He was a fourth-line player, a far cry from the second-line center he was projected to be when drafted. But with each game he played, the glimpses of what had excited scouts were more frequent. No-look passes onto the tape. Quick hands around the net. Even his young body seemed to be getting stronger behind the net and along the boards.
If there was a breakthrough moment, he said, it came when Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, noticing all that, centered him on a second line with Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds in Washington on Jan. 31. Patrick scored a goal and assisted on another in the Flyers’ 5-3 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. With Oskar Lindblom eventually replacing the injured Simmonds, Patrick scored 10 of his 13 goals from that point. He finished with 30 points for the season, creating a palpable sigh of relief from fans and front office types alike.
“I think that was good for my confidence,’’ he said. ” Obviously my body was part of it. But some of that is mentally too. I was just more comfortable. I was playing back more of my game, and some of that was physical And I think I kept improving from there on.’’
Which brings us to this summer, when, for the first time in three, Nolan Patrick can do what many of his drafted peers from a season ago have been doing all along: train to improve, not to recover.
“It’s been nice,’’ he said.
Oh yeah – and watch too. The Flyers don’t have the second pick, but they do have two picks among the top 19, so the likelihood is he will see even more of his future unveiled.
“Just to enjoy the experience,’’ he said. “It goes fast. Now, with a season under my belt, I look back at it as such a fun day.’’