CHICAGO — When the Flyers moved from No. 13 to No. 2 in the draft lottery, club president Paul Holmgren called it an “unexpected gift.”
On Friday night, the Flyers opened their “present,” and out popped Nolan Patrick, a sturdy 6-foot-2, 199-pound center whom some scouts thought was the best player in the draft.
After New Jersey took dynamic center Nico Hischier with the top pick at the United Center, the Flyers selected Patrick, a prolific scorer and passer who said he is fully recovered from the two sports hernias that limited him to 33 games last season.
“I kind of had a feeling I was going to end up in Philly, and I’m real excited about the chance to go there” said Patrick, whose dad, mom, two sisters and an uncle were at the draft. “It’s a special day for me and my family.”
Patrick was recovering from the sports hernias while also dealing with a leg injury this season.
“I didn’t play one game this year feeling myself and being 100 percent,” Patrick said, “so I just need a good summer to get back to where I need to be.”
He still managed to collect 46 points last season, including 20 goals, in 33 games with Brandon in the Western Hockey League.
“You never want to be injured, especially during your draft year,” he said. “Obviously it was a tough year for me, but I think it makes me stronger as a player. Adversity at this age doesn’t hurt, and I’m just going to move on from there.”
The previous season, Patrick had 41 goals and 102 points in 72 games for Brandon, making him the odds-on favorite to be selected No. 1 in this year’s draft. That was before he saw limited action this season and before Hischier continued to blossom.
The Flyers brought Patrick in for a physical recently and were satisfied with the results. Patrick believes that after a long summer of training, he will be in a good position to win a roster spot this season.
Does general manager Ron Hextall see Patrick as a No. 1 center down the road?
“Nolan is going to have to answer that,” Hextall said. “We see a kid with a big body, extremely high hockey sense and really good skill set. But you know what, you get drafted today, and your work starts now. You have to put the work in. This is another level. You can play junior hockey and everything else, but this is the National Hockey League, and he’s going to come to camp in September, and he needs to have a big summer.”
Patrick, 18, who missed being eligible for the 2016 draft by four days, is a physical player who carves out space for himself.
“He’s not afraid to hold you off, physically,” said Craig Button, the former Calgary Flames general manager who is a draft analyst with TSN in Canada. “I don’t think Nolan will ever be a fast skater, but he plays at a quick pace.”
Button called Patrick a “very smart player. His hallmark is his passing, and he’s got a good shot. And because of his size, he’s got the ability to hold off the guy, draw another guy to him, and he has great vision on getting the puck (to someone) and open up a play.”
Patrick’s father (Steve) and two uncles (James Patrick and Rich Chernomaz) played in the NHL.
Most scouts think Patrick is NHL-ready because of his size and maturity.
“I’ve watched Nolan since he was 15, and the one thing I have consistently seen from him is that in big moments, he’s always right there in the middle of things,” Button said. “He’s no shrinking violet….He’s a difference-maker.”
In terms of his style, Button compared Patrick to Eric Staal, who has collected 353 goals and 846 points in 1,011 career games.
Left winger James van Riemsdyk was the only other player the Flyers ever selected with the No. 2 overall pick in a draft. Drafted in 2007, van Riemsdyk played three seasons with the Flyers before being dealt to Toronto, where he has scored 118 goals in 332 games with the Maple Leafs.
After the Flyers’ drafted Patrick, Pierre McGuire, the NBCSN hockey analyst, said the team would make the playoffs this season, saying coach Dave Hakstol had a “murderers’ row of young players” to build around. “I think they will be one of the more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference moving forward.”