Nolan Patrick entered the 2018-19 season as a freshly-turned 20-year-old facing hefty expectations.
Fair or not, that can be life as a No. 2 overall draft pick.
Patrick was coming off a healthy summer and his first NHL season in which he turned it on down the stretch to help the Flyers clinch a playoff berth. Many pinned him as the team's No. 2 center and predicted a breakout sophomore season of production well surpassing his 30-point rookie year.
It didn't happen. From a numbers standpoint, Patrick scored 31 points and played one fewer game than he did as a rookie. His spurts of brilliance were often overshadowed by prolonged slumps in which he blended in with the rest.
"I feel like there have been points where I've played the way I can and have had a big impact on games," Patrick said in April after the Flyers' season ended. "Then there are also stretches where I haven't been good enough and I haven't been playing the way I can. I think that's just strictly a confidence thing and staying confident throughout the year."
Which brings us to Kevin Hayes. One has to wonder if Patrick's confidence and role were on the mind of general manager Chuck Fletcher when he traded for Hayes, an impending unrestricted free agent, on Monday night (see story).
"I would suggest there are 27, 28 teams that would probably like to find a No. 1 or No. 2 centerman. It's a hard thing to find," Fletcher said in April. "Certainly if you can find a top centerman, I think any team should jump on it. We'll certainly look, but Nolan has the capability of being a No. 2 centerman."
If the Flyers are able to sign Hayes, the acquisition has the makings of a springboard for Patrick's growth. Less pressure, less responsibility can help Patrick. Now, he could have more time and room to reach those capabilities.
Patrick isn't the first 20-year-old to fight confidence. His psyche, though, is crucial to his physical game. A key to this offseason was adding down the middle — not just for depth, but also for Patrick.
Interestingly, another center in the picture doesn't pigeonhole Patrick. Instead, it provides the Flyers with greater options to drive his development forward.
They'll have better opportunities to mix and match with Patrick. He can play on the third line next to Oskar Lindblom and another offensive-minded winger, possibly a youngster or an offseason acquisition. When his offense is clicking, he can climb back to the second unit with more talent and scoring accountability. He also saw some positive results this season playing alongside Claude Giroux when the Flyers tried spreading the wealth a bit.
Having Patrick not feel the weight of being a focal point from the outset should be a focus for the Flyers. It likely played into the thought process of the Hayes trade.
"It's really tough. Eighty-two games is a lot, especially in this league," Patrick said of the NHL grind. "It's demanding on your body and your mind. I think when you have teammates like we do, it's easy to stay positive and have fun when we come to the rink.
"I try to have big summers training-wise and come in ready. I felt like I was in great shape when I got here. I think it's just a mental thing, maybe overthinking it too much."
Hayes can help the Flyers. He's 27 and scored a career-high 25 goals last season and a career-high 55 points this season, despite being traded at the Feb. 25 deadline.
Better yet, what he could do for a young Patrick would make everyone forget about a 2019 fifth-round pick lost in the process.
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