VOORHEES, N.J. — If Nolan Patrick is to have a long and storied career in the National Hockey League, then perhaps we shouldn’t get caught up in the prologue — that section of a book you likely skim over before you begin chapter one.
This season is Patrick’s prologue — a short blurb that will likely be passed over when the final chapter is eventually written.
In fact, Flyers GM Ron Hextall reminded us recently that, as an 18-year-old, Joe Thornton scored three goals and seven points in 55 games during his rookie season with the Boston Bruins in 1997-98. Does anyone remember or discuss Year 1 of the Thornton era?
“People forget this stuff,” Hextall said. “These guys are young kids. It’s why some players need time in the minors. It’s a process. It’s hard to go out 82 times against 25, 30-year-old men and play. It’s demanding as hell. People don’t realize that.”
Starting the season on the Flyers' second line with Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds, Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in this past June's entry draft, was consistently logging 13 and a half minutes a game and contributing offensively despite inconsistencies while acclimating and adjusting to playing at a much higher pace. Then came the hit against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 24 and the prolonged post-concussion period that lasted for nearly a month.
Recently, the mistakes have piled up with turnovers and poor positional play, and head coach Dave Hakstol has cut Patrick’s ice time. The rookie averaged a little below nine minutes during the recent three-game Western Canada sweep.
“Patrick’s 19 years old. He’s a kid,” Hextall said. “I know people want more out of him. We want more out of him, but he’s a 19-year-old. People think because a kid’s got a big name, he’s drafted high, he’s going to come into the league and bang, he’s going to make an instant impact.
“He’s shown enough of signs that he can compete at this level and be a factor, and that’s what you want with a young kid. I don’t like putting young kids on a team that aren’t a factor. Why would he even be on your team? Nolan has shown at times he can be a factor and he needs to get better as the year goes on.”
Patrick’s season is more than anything a by-product of last year in juniors with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings when he suffered a muscle tear in the midsection area that went misdiagnosed. Admittedly, he was never performing at 100 percent while fighting through pain and discomfort.
While the majority of non-playoff NHLers begin their offseason regimen sometime in May, Patrick barely did anything. He worked out prior to combine testing in June leading up to the draft, and only after meeting with renowned core muscle surgeon Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia did Patrick realize his injuries were career-threatening.
Had Patrick gone through an injury-free season with the Wheat Kings and a full offseason to recover from normal nagging injuries all players go through, he would have been back in the gym before the first round of the NHL playoffs had commenced.
“I think [Brandon] lost out in April, so obviously I would have liked to have that whole time to train and work on my game, but my body had other ideas for me,” Patrick said. “The big thing for me was I was hoping I was in good enough shape to do well with fitness testing and all of that. I only had a month to train. That was kind of the main thing I was worried about.”
A second surgery followed with a four-to-six week recovery and then came a bizarre abscess/boil that prevented him from skating in late July. By the time Patrick started working out in August, he was a good two months behind even the most experienced veterans.
“He didn’t have a regular offseason, didn’t play a lot last year," Hextall said. "It’s not an excuse, but those are things you got to look at. This is where he’s at right now, and Nolan has done some goods things for us. Does he need to do better? Yeah, he does.”
Just about every player would like to rewrite their rookie season, especially those who came into the league as a teenager. Prior to Patrick, Sean Couturier was the last Flyer to play in the NHL the same year he was drafted. In Couturier’s case, he had the luxury of playing on a talented in 2011-12 team while focusing on his role as a fourth-line defensive center.
“It’s all about getting adapted to a new lifestyle,” Couturier said of transitioning to the NHL as a teenager. “Everything’s new. You’re going from juniors, being with a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds, and all of a sudden, you’re with men. It’s definitely a big change in your life. Offseason training, nutrition — a lot of little details matter.
“I think Nolan’s figuring it out, but you can see he’s got all the potential to succeed. I’m not too worried about him to be honest."
Eventually Patrick will turn the page on his career. It just might not come this season.