This season has been brutal for Nolan Patrick. The 21-year-old was diagnosed with a migraine disorder in September 2019, causing him to miss the full 2019-20 NHL season up to the point of the COVID-19 pause.
Although there was, at one point, hope that Patrick would play before the season’s conclusion, the NHL hiatus has thwarted that plan. For some time, he’s been a regular participant, albeit a no-contact participant, in Flyers practices, but there’s still been no established timetable as to when he might make his return to NHL play.
Even if the NHL resumes to carry out the postseason, Patrick probably wouldn’t be in the lineup. In the likely event that he doesn’t play a game during the 2019-20 season, it may nr time to figure out where he will fit on the Flyers’ roster for the 2020-21 season.
Fitting in a House Full of Centers
Among the positives of 2019-20, the Flyers proved that their catalogue of centers is deep. Sean Couturier alone is one of the best centers in the league, with plenty of talent falling in behind him.
With Couturier and Kevin Hayes in mind, Patrick’s return would have him, at the very least, centering the third line. Determining his role then boils down to what the Flyers plan to do with some of their bottom-six forwards, especially third- and fourth-line centers Derek Grant and Nate Thompson.
It’s hard to imagine that the Flyers will hang on to both Grant and Thompson heading into next season, especially when Patrick returns and as they try to give Morgan Frost more ice time. Honestly, the Flyers are much more likely to hang on to Grant considering he can play just about any forward position. If they choose to keep him and move him to a wing, both Patrick and Frost could occupy the bottom two center spots next season.
Figuring out an Exact Fit
Even if Patrick returns to full health and looks like the player who went second overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, he’ll still be a bottom-six forward. A third- or fourth-line center was probably not what fans were expecting when the Flyers selected him behind Nico Hischier, but there was no way to foresee how sidetracked the early stages of his career would be by significant injuries.
Considering how often head coach Alain Vigneault likes to swap line combinations throughout the season, there’s really no telling who Patrick might play with. He could end up alongside any of the typical third- and fourth-line forwards like Scott Laughton, Tyler Pitlick, Nic Aube-Kubel, Michael Raffl, and maybe, from time to time, Joel Farabee or James van Riemsdyk. He could even find himself on the same line as the Flyers’ newest signee, Linus Sandin.
This buildup to Patrick’s return would feel unjustified if he was only getting third-line time at full strength. There’s always the possibility that he could earn power-play minutes, as he did periodically during the first two seasons of his career.
He could bring a lot to the man up, with both his a strong shot from the slot and as a big net-front presence to jump on rebounds and loose pucks. It wouldn’t be too difficult to incorporate Patrick on either of the power-play units and it could be the solution to ramping up his offensive production once he returns.
What’s Left On the Road to Recovery
The biggest hurdle left for Patrick is getting cleared for contact. Neither the Flyers or Patrick have given any indication when that might happen.
When Patrick is finally cleared to return to games, as Vigneault has stated, he’ll still have to complete a conditioning stint with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms before returning to the Flyers lineup. If he can come back at full strength and show some semblance of the player he was expected to be, then his time in the AHL should be short.
Regardless of when Patrick actually makes his return to the NHL, fans can expect him to have a fairly small role on the bottom two lines, at least in the beginning.
Once he proves that he’s overcome the brutal and unfortunate circumstances that have kept him out the lineup for so long, he should have no problem earning a better and more significant role with the team. Until then, all we can do is hope that this extra time off is benefitting his recovery and will help him become NHL, or even AHL, ready by the time next season rolls around.