Nolan Patrick is a man of few words. You get the impression he’d rather have a root canal than answer the media’s questions, especially those about his migraine battle.
The Flyers’ 22-year-old center prefers to let his play on the ice do the talking, and, so far, he has spoken loud and clear in training camp.
His play has said this: He looks ready for his first NHL game in 650 days Wednesday, when the Flyers open their season against Pittsburgh at the Wells Fargo Center.
Patrick has been sharp, creating space for himself, showing terrific playmaking skills, and buzzing around the net in scrimmages. He has also displayed impressive hands in shootout drills. And he looked comfortable on the second power-play unit Friday.
But perhaps the biggest development was that he was able to withstand a big collision – with 6-foot-7, 230-pound teammate Samuel Morin, of all people – and not miss a shift in a scrimmage Wednesday.
And, make no mistake, the ability of Patrick and 24-year-old left winger Oskar Lindblom to return to the lineup and be productive is the biggest factor in whether the Flyers improve on last year and make a Stanley Cup run.
“Expectations are high. Let’s not kid ourselves,” coach Alain Vigneault, whose team won one playoff round last season, said the other day after a camp session in Voorhees. “Our first goal is to get into the playoffs, and then we are not in this to win one series. We are in this to win the Stanley Cup. Four series. Sixteen games. We believe we have a very good team. We have a Stanley Cup-contending team, and we can be [that team] if we play to our level and play to our potential. With a healthy Nolan and a healthy Oskar, that adds to the talent of this group. It adds to the depth of this group.”
If those two young forwards get back to form, it’s like general manager Chuck Fletcher, who was rather quiet in the offseason, added a pair of major pieces.
“The talent up and down the front is just unbelievable,” veteran defenseman Justin Braun said.
The Flyers will have added a potential top-line winger and a center who was the No. 2 overall draft selection in 2017 and could have a breakthrough season. For perspective: Andrei Svechnikov (24 goals, 61 points in 68 games last year) in 2018, Patrik Laine (28 goals, 63 points in 68 games last year) in 2016, and Jack Eichel (36 goals, 78 points in 68 games last year) in 2015 were also No. 2 overall selections in their respective drafts.
That’s not to say Patrick, who missed all of last season because of migraines, is going to turn into one of those dominating players this year. It is to suggest that, like the aforementioned forwards, he is loaded with talent and could give opponents bad matchups if he is on a line with James van Riemsdyk and Jake Voracek.
If, of course, he is healthy.
Like Patrick, Lindblom has looked very good in camp. He appears stronger and quicker than he did when he returned for the playoffs last September after grueling chemotherapy treatments. It’s not out of the question that Lindblom will start the year on the top line with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny – a unit that excelled early last season before the left winger was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in December.
The trio has been together in the last two scrimmages. Each player brings a different asset to the unit, and their chemistry is admirable.
“No doubt having Oskar back with our group is not just comforting for me but comforting for all his teammates. I’m sure it is very comforting for Oskar,” Vigneault said. “When Oskar stopped playing, he was playing with Coots and TK. I wanted to see that and wasn’t disappointed.”
The Flyers are deep up front. They have four very good lines – hey, when your projected fourth-line center, Scott Laughton, led the team with five goals in last year’s playoffs, you have lots of depth.
The surprising retirement of Matt Niskanen has left questions on defense, but coming-of-age goalie Carter Hart can erase a lot of mistakes.
Vigneault said the most important factor is getting the team to play to its potential.
“That is on me to get this group to become the best that they can be,” he said.
“This team,” Braun said, “has the ability to put together something special.”