Will Nolan Patrick make the Flyers?
It might be the most tantalizing question ahead of the 2017-18 season.
But the criteria for the answer is quite simple:
Does Patrick make the Flyers better?
Does he still need junior hockey?
Let's look at the first question.
Over the past three seasons, the Flyers have scored 2.58 goals per game, tied for 22nd in the NHL. They have lit the lamp at a nearly identical — but stale and stagnant — clip. In 2014-15, it was 212 goals, followed by 211 in 2015-16 and 212 last season. That's three straight seasons of bottom-third goal scoring.
In that same three-year stretch, the Flyers have ranked 27th in the NHL with 396 goals at 5-on-5 play. Last year, the Flyers' 128 goals at 5-on-5 were the franchise's fewest in a complete season since 2007-08 (126) and the second fewest in the last 30 years.
The Flyers have needed depth and playmaking at the center position, definitive factors into why their scoring has languished. Here is Patrick, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound center regarded for his ability to create and make chances. The pressure he would relieve off of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier would only be an added bonus.
How about question No. 2?
At 17 years old with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings, Patrick amassed an astounding 132 points (54 goals, 78 assists) in 93 games, including playoffs.
At 18 years old last season, Patrick trudged through troublesome core muscle problems to put up 20 goals and 26 assists in 33 games.
"I was probably 60 percent when I first started playing and maybe got up to 70, 75 tops," Patrick said in July. "I never had any wind during games. I'd lose my energy really quick because I'd lose it trying to skate with that injury. Probably 75 tops, I'd say."
Think about that: Patrick would feel a "sharp, shooting pain" in his lower stomach, he said, when skating last season, and still managed to produce 46 points (1.4 per night) in 33 games.
Imagine the kid healthy?
"Even playing injured for most of the year, he could still dominate some games and was still one of the top players out there," his uncle James Patrick said to CSNPhilly.com in June. "That's where he was in February of this year, I have no doubt and expect him to be stronger and healthier and even better in October of this year.
"I do think for him, because of where he's at in junior and Brandon, I do think it's best for him to be in the NHL, but he's got to go out and earn that."
Which is Ron Hextall's language. The Flyers' general manager will say the right things and always be diplomatic when discussing a prospect's chances at making the roster. And that's perfectly fine. Training camp is about competition — let the play do the talking and decision-making for the front office.
But with the No. 2 overall pick healthy and rejuvenated following June abdominal surgery, Patrick has already answered the Flyers' questions. At his age, it's either back to junior hockey for all of 2017-18 or make the Flyers. Patrick turns 19 years old on Sept. 19 and his NHL birthday present should be unwrapped now, not later.
He's ready to play.