Up in Toronto, Auston Matthews — the No. 1 pick in last year's NHL draft — scored four goals in his debut with the Maple Leafs and 40 goals last season and helped the Leafs reach the postseason for the second time in 13 years. Over in Winnipeg, Patrik Laine — the No. 2 pick in last year's NHL draft — had 36 goals in 73 games, the velocity and accuracy of his slap and wrist shots already comparable to those of the sport's purest scorers. And in Brandon, Manitoba, Nolan Patrick kept an eye on each of them, waiting his turn.
"Yeah, I watched those guys quite a bit," Patrick, the No. 2 selection in this year's draft, said during the Flyers' development camp earlier this month. "Honestly, they are both unbelievable players, and I don't try to compare myself to those guys. I try to be my own player. Obviously, it is really cool to see young guys step in and make an impact. It is positive to see younger guys doing well, and hopefully I can do that."
Patrick, still convalescing from a June surgery to repair a sports hernia, did not participate in that camp. He was supposed to skate by himself Wednesday morning at the Skate Zone, but the Flyers pushed the session back to Thursday. A team spokesman said that he didn't know the reason for the delay but added that he was "sure it's nothing," and, well, given the tendency within hockey culture to downplay the severity of injuries, let's just say it sure will be reassuring to see Patrick skate Thursday morning without any complications. For all the patience that general manager Ron Hextall has shown in trying to rebuild the Flyers, it would be a disappointment, both for the franchise and for Patrick, if he were not to play for them this season — whether because of his health or Hextall's reluctance to push him too far too fast.
"I think every kid growing up wants to play in the NHL, and that has been my goal since I have been super-young," Patrick said. "I don't set too many goals for myself, but three years ago, I wanted to play in the NHL (my) first year eligible."
Actually, a spot on the Flyers roster should be the bare-minimum expectation for Patrick this season. Over the 10 NHL drafts ahead of this year's, 16 forwards were selected among the top two picks. Those 16 players averaged 18 goals, 43 points, and 63 games in those subsequent NHL seasons, and those first-season averages include Sam Reinhart, who appeared in just nine games for the Buffalo Sabres during the 2014-15 season, and James van Riemsdyk, who was drafted by the Flyers at No. 2 in 2007 but didn't play his first game for them until 2009.
Remember, too, that Patrick was regarded as the prospect in this draft most prepared to play in the NHL right away. That status, one could reasonably argue, distinguishes him from Reinhart and van Riemsdyk, who apparently needed more time to develop. Remove Reinhart's negligible and van Riemsdyk's nonexistent production from the calculation, then, and the expectations for Patrick should rise. Among those 14 forwards who did enter the NHL immediately after their teams drafted them, the first-season averages were 21.6 goals, 49.7 points, and 70.9 games. Over 82 games, a top-two pick such as Patrick should provide about 58 points' worth of offense in his first season, roughly what Brayden Schenn provided the Flyers in his seventh and eighth NHL seasons, which might explain why the Flyers were willing to trade Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and take the chance that Patrick would be an immediate and more-than-adequate replacement for him. Patrick doesn't have to be Matthews or Laine, but he can contribute as a rookie. He can be a top-6 forward. It's reasonable to think he should be.
Patrick, of course, has to have that opportunity, and on the surface, the conditions would seem ideal for him to get it. The Flyers need more size and skill throughout their forward lines, and at 6-foot-2 and pushing 200 pounds, Patrick would presumably provide both. And he would be playing for a head coach, Dave Hakstol, whom the Flyers hired primarily because of his experience and adeptness in developing young talent while he was at the University of North Dakota.
"I know Hak, and Hak has no problem playing young kids," an NHL scout said in a recent interview. "He did it his whole tenure at North Dakota. Whether it was T.J. Oshie or Jonathan Toews or Brett Hextall, they became much better players because he knew how to pace them. For any young player who's going into that organization, they've got a coach who has patience."