With Nolan Patrick, it’s difficult to tell where the patience should end and the concern should begin. He has played 29 games for the Flyers so far, and he has just two goals, and his ice time dropped during the team’s recent two-game road trip to Florida. He had been averaging 12 minutes this season, but against neither the Panthers nor the Lightning did Patrick play more than 9 1/2 minutes. Is this progress? Especially for the player who was the second overall selection in last year’s NHL draft?
It is easy to find mitigating factors. He underwent two abdominal surgeries during the offseason, and he suffered a concussion in late October, and he is still just 19, and not every highly touted rookie, even one who was a draft’s No. 2 pick, develops at the same rate. Those surgeries and their effect should not be understated. “I try not to think about that too much,” Patrick said at the Flyers’ morning skate Tuesday, before their game against the Penguins. “I don’t want to make excuses for anything. It’s part of the game, and it’s something you have to work through.”
Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere had to recover from abdominal injuries last season and were often empty husks of their former selves. They have been better, stronger players this season, as they’ve gained distance from the operations and the rehabilitation, so shouldn’t Patrick be given a grace period?
“It’s just a tough injury to have in general,” Gostisbehere said. “Every push, you felt it. You felt a little pinch. After the surgery, too, it was more mental for me, coming back from that injury. I had two surgeries at once. I was just thinking, ‘Hey, am I going to be normal again?’ You’re just skating, and you want to push harder, and in your mind, you don’t know if it’s going to hurt or not. …
“To go through a little adversity at the start of your career, it sucks right now for him. If he’s thinking he’s not playing his best, I think he’s playing pretty well right now for us. When you come into the league coming off an injury, it’s kind of tough. In the long run for him, mentally and physically, it’ll be better.”
It has to be, for his sake and the Flyers’. For all the preaching that general manager Ron Hextall has done about sticking to his slow and steady rebuilding plan, for all the sense that his approach makes for a franchise forever chasing a quick fix, the Flyers entered the 2017 draft with a 2.4 percent chance of getting the No. 2 pick — and they got it. That’s a gold-plated opportunity to acquire a player who can accelerate a rebuild, a measure of good fortune that the Flyers never could have counted on and, now that it has happened, they cannot afford to waste.
The last time they had the No. 2 pick in a draft, they did, in fact, waste it — not by selecting James van Riemsdyk but by trading him before his prime for a middling defenseman in Luke Schenn. The player whom van Riemsdyk has since become — a first- or second-line power forward for the Maple Leafs who has averaged 30 goals per 82 games over the last six years — is exactly the sort of player whom the Flyers have lacked, and have needed, since his departure. They missed with van Riemsdyk. They cannot miss with Patrick, and that truth and the attendant pressure it places on him, fairly or unfairly, is reason enough for concern.
I’m not suggesting that Patrick already is or is bound to be a bust. I’m suggesting that his injuries and the nature of Hextall’s philosophy about young players — he doesn’t believe in rushing them — make it a challenge to know what exactly the Flyers have and will have in Patrick. Those two factors actually give Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol a convenient reason not to ask too much of Patrick this season: He’s still battling through the aftermath of the surgeries and the concussion, and hey, we’re not inclined to push him too much too fast anyway.
Still … two goals in 29 games. Is it wrong to expect and ask for more from him?
“He’s a guy who can help produce on the offensive side of the game for us,” Hakstol said. “He’s close there. He’s got to just keep pushing. At this time of year, you’ve got to be a good player in terms of your reliability and your 200-foot play, your hardness on pucks, your quickness on pucks, and I think he’s working on that and on being consistent in that area.
“All the value can’t be on point production. Nolan is a guy we need to help chip in, and he’s a guy who expects to chip in. He has to have some expectation there. But it’s real important that all the emphasis isn’t just on generating points.”
For now, the emphasis can be on improving his all-around play. For now, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if nothing much is different next season, if it’s still so hard to see the progress in Nolan Patrick’s game when he’s healthy and older and more experienced, then the questions will begin again, and it will be right to demand answers.