OTTAWA – Nolan Patrick has not put up the type of offensive numbers produced by some No. 2 overall selections in recent NHL drafts.
Nobody on the Flyers, or in their loyal fan base, is complaining.
Patrick, folks, is blossoming right before our eyes, and his transformation has helped make the Flyers – who lost 10 straight and were buried in the standings earlier in the season – one of the NHL's most dangerous teams.
The 19-year-old rookie center is showing why he was so highly regarded coming out of Brandon in the Western Hockey League, and why many draft experts predicted he would one day reach stardom. Patrick is now centering the Flyers' No. 2 line, and has moved onto the top power-play unit. His coach trusts him. So do his teammates.
"He's a pretty smart hockey player," captain Claude Giroux said before Patrick scored a goal for the fourth straight game and helped the Flyers beat Ottawa, 5-3, on Saturday. "When you tell him to do something, he's going to do it right away."
Patrick's numbers – nine goals and 18 points – are modest. But he has six goals in his last 13 games after collecting just three in his first 40. He is starting to play with a swagger and, more important, has picked up another gear in the last five weeks or so.
Before that, he was still hindered by offseason core-muscle surgery that temporarily reduced his quickness. He also took a step back because of an early-season concussion.
"The last 15 or 20 games, I've been feeling myself," he said. "… Gradually over time, you get more comfortable."
He is playing with more confidence and isn't reluctant to carry the puck and try to create some offense, whereas early in the season he seemed more content to pass it quickly to a teammate.
"Patty's a good player. His approach to the game and his hockey sense and intelligence is what gives him an opportunity to be successful in any situation," coach Dave Hakstol said after Patrick's second power-play goal in as many games – he has replaced injured Wayne Simmonds on the top unit – lifted the Flyers to Thursday's 2-1 comeback win over Columbus. "Each time we've been able to give him a little more opportunity, he's taken advantage of that. Again, it's not the areas of the game that end up under a spotlight or highlight reel that, a lot of times, are important this time of the year. It's the little things, and Nolan is doing a lot of those little things on a nightly basis."
Things like winning faceoffs and board battles, being defensively responsible, and, in the words of Hakstol, "playing a 200-foot game."
"The fact he's taken pride in that is really the foundation of his game," the third-year coach said.
The emergence of Patrick, rookie defenseman Robert Hagg, and second-year right winger Travis Konecny – who has 24 points, including 11 goals, in 26 games since moving to the top line – has helped catapult the Flyers. Other young players, such as Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, have also continued to grow, and veterans Giroux (an MVP candidate), Sean Couturier, and Jake Voracek are having magical seasons.
But, from here, the biggest difference in the Flyers from early December to late February has been the maturation of Patrick and Konecny.
Nearly three months ago, the Flyers looked cooked. They went on an 0-5-5 skid that put them nine points out of a playoff spot. "Fire Hakstol!" chants echoed around the Wells Fargo Center. Remember?
Flip the calendar to late February. Hakstol has become a coach-of-the-year candidate – Vegas' Gerard Gallant is still the heavy favorite – and the Flyers entered Friday nine points ahead of the team just outside the playoffs. Oh, and they are battling for first place in the Metropolitan Division with Washington and Pittsburgh.
If you saw this coming, you must have bloodlines to Scotty Bowman or Keith Allen. Or general manager Ron Hextall, who was probably the only person from Medford to Manayunk who believed in this team back in early December.
Patrick isn't going to come close to the numbers produced by some No. 2 overall picks in their first seasons after being drafted, such as Patrik Laine (36 goals, 64 points), Jack Eichel (24 goals, 56 points), Gabriel Landeskog (22 goals, 52 points), and Jordan Staal (29 goals, 42 points). But he could match Tyler Seguin (11 goals, 22 points) in his first year, and Patrick's play in the last five weeks has been eye-opening.
"Is he 19 yet?" Giroux asked.
"It's pretty crazy to think that he can make an impact like that when he's 19 years old," Giroux said.
And pretty crazy to think that the Flyers, who are a year ahead of schedule, are looking more and more like Stanley Cup contenders thanks to their blend of youth and veterans and the deal that brought in Petr Mrazek to plug the goaltending hole.
"I didn't see myself playing in this league when I was 19," Giroux added, showing his admiration for Patrick's progress. "It's impressive how young players come in and they can make a difference right way. He's going to be a fun player to watch."