Prior to the start of the 2018-19 season, Flyers center Nolan Patrick was selected by NHL Network's Mike Johnson as his leading candidate for "NHL breakout player" of the upcoming season. The choice made sense.
Patrick, who turned 20 on Sept. 19, seemingly took steps forward in the second half of his rookie NHL season. The second overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft also was completely healthy for the first time in a couple of years, and was able to have a full offseason of training.
Unfortunately, from an offensive stat standpoint, Patrick's second NHL season ended up being very much like his first: 13 goals and 30 points in 73 games as a rookie, 13 goals and 31 points in 72 games in 2018-19. In both seasons, his productivity skewed toward the second half. This year, he had five goals and 11 points at the statistical midpoint of the season, and eight goals and 23 points in the second half.
"Production wise, everyone looks at the numbers and that is something everybody judges your year off of them. In the second half I played some really good hockey and kind of found my game. First half wasn't good enough but I played well in second half," Patrick said.
"I feel like there have been points where I've played the way I can and have had big impacts on games. Also stretches I haven't been good enough."
From Jan. 14 to Feb. 16 of this season, Patrick had a 13-game run in the second half where he produced 12 points, including a pair of two-goal games and the first three-point game of his NHL career. Unfortunately, he had another goal drought thereafter, scoring just one more goal the rest of the season before missing the final two games with an upper-body injury.
What was hidden within the numbers: There was noticeable progression in Patrick's two-way game throughout the season. Even as a rookie, his attention to detail in approaching the small battles within the game was above average for such a young NHL player but Patrick made strides in the consistency of his play, particularly when he does not have the puck.
"What I like about Nolan is he's got a pretty good game outside of points. What I mean about that is he is a pretty smart player defensively, he's responsible, he works really hard. I think there's attributes there where he can help a team even when he's not producing," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
Even so, Patrick was not drafted so high to be a defensive specialist. He is also expected to produce points on a fairly regular basis. While he would sometimes show impressive moves and try creative plays -- such as scoring a nifty between-the-legs goal during his January surge and turning the D inside out and sniping a goal in a game in Montreal shortly thereafter -- there were also long stretches where Patrick too readily passed up open shots.
"There's certain things he needs to work on, like he needs to improve his shot. I think he's a quality play-maker. He comes through the middle of the ice with speed. He's one of the few players on our team when he's on his game, he's coming through the middle of the ice, he's backing people off, and he can make plays," Fletcher said.
"I think improving his shot would help a little bit, maybe make defenders respect that area of the game and give him more opportunities to do things. Like every young player, he needs to continue to get stronger. I'm sure he can get a little faster and just needs to continue to mature. I thought at times this year he looked pretty darn good."
Coincidentally or not, it is worth noting that Patrick's most productive offensive stretch of the season came during a period of the season when Claude Giroux moved back to center from left wing. Although Giroux's own productivity took a temporary downtown from his midseason numbers (13 goals, 46 points through 41 games), having Patrick center the third line behind Giroux and Sean Couturier helped get Patrick into favorable matchups.
Later in the season, after Giroux returned to wing (often playing right wing instead of left, so that James van Riemsdyk could play on his line), Patrick spent a spell centering the team captain and JVR. Statistically, the line did not do as much as hoped in their time together.
Near the tail end of the season, Patrick returned to a previous regular combo in which Oskar Lindblom was on his left wing. Arguably, of all the wingers on the Flyers, it has been Lindblom with whom Patrick has had on the most on-ice chemistry thus far in his young NHL career. Before Patrick missed the season's final two games with an upper-body injury, Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon called the Patrick line the team's best combo in a late season game in Dallas.
Heading into the 2019 offseason, the plan is for Giroux to remain on a wing rather than playing center. Fletcher was asked if the team will shop for a veteran second-line center with Patrick on the third line if he feels Patrick is capable of producing at a second-line caliber level for a full season next season.
"That's a fair question. I think he could be (a second-liner). I would suggest there's 27, 28 teams that would probably like to find a #1 or #2 center-man. It's a hard thing to find. Certainly if you can find a top center-man, I think any team should jump on it. We'll certainly look, but Nolan has the capability of being a #2 center-man. Whether that's next year, time will tell. It's hard to project with young players. He's just 20 years old. Whether he can go all the way to being a full time #2, certainly that should be his goal. At some point he will get there," Fletcher said.
For his part, Patrick said that the key to a breakthrough next season is not about matchups. Rather, he believes it comes from within.
"I think that's strictly a confidence thing and staying confident throughout the year. When I'm playing good, I'm skating and can feel it right from the start of game....I think there is another gear I can get to."