The Philadelphia Flyers received an incredibly fortuitous break ahead of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft when they moved up from the 13th position to the second in the draft lottery. They selected center Nolan Patrick, a star from the Western Hockey League who was considered by many talent evaluators to be the top prospect prior to an injury ahead of the draft. It was just the third time in franchise history that the Flyers picked in the top two.
Patrick’s development with the Flyers has left a lot to be desired. He posted 61 points in 145 games through his first two NHL seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and showed brief flashes of the skill level that earned him the nod as the second overall pick. After recording just seven points in his first 29 games as a rookie, he appeared to hit his stride in the second half of the season with 23 points in his final 44 games.
However, he had a similarly slow start to the 2018-19 season for a Flyers team that fell drastically short of expectations (from ‘After a stagnant sophomore season, Nolan Patrick looks to take a step forward in lesser role,’ The Athletic, 8/28/19). His frequent scoring droughts and overall inconsistency during his first two seasons prevented him from reaching the status of a core player the organization could count on in their long-term plans.
Migraine Disorder Mars Progress
Patrick missed the entirety of the 2019-20 season while dealing with symptoms resulting from a migraine disorder. The nature of the situation was collectively difficult for coaches, management, media, and fans to dissect. The severity of the disorder was not detailed to the public very extensively, and the lack of any definitive evaluation of the situation from Patrick or the organization dragged on through the season. Although Patrick was able to skate with the team by the time play resumed following the COVID-19 pause last season, he did not play in the Toronto bubble because of the expected period of adjustment back into the flow of live-action needed after the long layoff.
The 2020-21 season seemed like an opportunity for a fresh start. He scored in the season-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 13 in his first NHL game in 652 days. Optimism swirled when he recorded five points in his first seven games. However, he has three points in 37 games since. He is currently -21 during a season littered with healthy scratches and precautionary measures that have limited his play due to his injury history. Head coach Alain Vigneault has given Patrick plenty of opportunity to assert himself on the power play and in other key offensive opportunities, but the lack of production has persisted.
Draft Class Brings Added Pressure
The success of the top picks surrounding Patrick in his draft class has not helped the perception around the league surrounding his slow development. The 2017 Draft was thought by a considerable consensus of talent evaluators to be a top-heavy, two-player draft because of high expectations for Patrick and first overall pick Nico Hischier. However, the next three picks following Patrick have greatly outperformed him.
Third and fourth overall picks Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar have developed into first pair defensemen for the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche, respectively, while the Flyers’ defensive corps has struggled mightily this season. Fifth overall pick Elias Pettersson is just narrowly below a point-per-game player over three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Steady progression in Hischier’s game also led the New Jersey Devils to invest over $50 million in him last offseason. They recently named him their team captain.
Future in Philadelphia in Question
The actions of the Flyers organization are indicative of their uncertainty about Patrick’s future in Philadelphia. Just before Patrick’s issues with the migraine disorder became public during the 2019 offseason, the Flyers signed free-agent center Kevin Hayes to a 7-year, $50 million contract. With Sean Couturier firmly planted at center on the first line, Hayes figured to slot conveniently into a second-line role, even prior to Patrick’s extended absence.
The Flyers recently inked center Scott Laughton, a well-respected player in the eyes of teammates and coaches, to a 5-year extension. They also expect to have top prospect Morgan Frost returning from injury and competing for ice time at center next season.
The prioritization of the expansion draft has figured heavily into personnel decisions throughout the NHL this season. The Flyers will use five of their seven forward expansion protection spots for Couturier, Hayes, Laughton, Claude Giroux, and Travis Konecny. They will only have two additional spots to use for Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Jake Voracek, and James van Riemsdyk. Given the lack of confidence the organization has shown in him, Patrick is far from a lock to earn one of these valuable protection spots in the expansion draft.
Patrick is still only 22 years old, and injuries have unquestionably slowed his development. He is set to become a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season, and he likely won’t be too expensive for the Flyers to sign. However, he had been involved in trade rumors leading up to the April 12 deadline and would reportedly welcome a change of scenery. He is a logical choice to be offered a fresh start from another organization, and the Flyers are a team likely to shop all available trade chips this offseason in their search for a top-pair defenseman. A sign and trade involving Patrick would make sense for the Flyers, given the right return package.
The “bust label” is oftentimes thrown around too quickly in the NHL. Teammates Couturier and Laughton both experienced ups and downs in their player development but ultimately grew into trusted commodities within the organization. However, the lengthy list of rough patches in Patrick’s development does not bode well for his future. He has been ineffective on the ice this season for an extremely disappointing Flyers team that will miss the 2021 Playoffs. If he can eventually reach the expected level of production for a second overall pick during his career, don’t expect it to be for the Flyers.