Nolan Patrick’s draft year has been an exercise in delayed anticipation.
The 18-year-old Brandon Wheat Kings centre has been so good the past two seasons, he established himself as the top prospect in the 2017 NHL Draft class. But now everyone, most critically Patrick himself has been forced to wait because he’s missed all but a handful of games with an upper-body injury.
A star contributor on one of the Canadian Hockey League’s best teams the past two-plus seasons, Patrick has already posted a 102-point season and played in the Mastercard Memorial Cup. The long layoff through mid-January has been frustrating and a little boring. He just wants to play.
“Because of the injury it’s been hard not to think about it,” said Patrick, of the draft in general but also potentially going No. 1 overall. “I just want to get back to playing and show what I can do.”
Comparisons are always tricky but Patrick reminds some scouts of a “less handsy” version of Jason Spezza, the OHL grad who now plays for the Dallas Stars after many years playing for the Ottawa Senators. Others have said that they see a little of John Tavares in the way Patrick plays. High praise indeed. “I think he will end up being a first-line centre in the NHL,” said Kyle Woodlief, chief scout for Red Line Report, an independent scouting newsletter.
Injuries in a player’s draft year are a hard-to- gauge variable. Most of the case history suggests that players are not penalized by long layoffs as evidenced by the selections of former Sarnia Sting Alex Galchenyuk (third overall by the Canadiens in 2012), Moose Jaw Warrior Morgan Rielly (fifth by the Maple Leafs in 2012) and Prince George Cougar Brett Connolly (sixth by the Lightning in 2010). All three of those CHL grads spent most of their draft year not playing. That said, there is little doubt that current Vancouver Giant Tyler Benson fell out of the first round in part because of his injury troubles last year, though he was eventually taken with the second pick of the second round by Edmonton.
“I think that shows how good those guys are,” said Patrick of overcoming injuries and still being a high pick. “That’s the (job) that I have ahead of me.”
Patrick and his team’s run to the WHL Final two years ago and then a WHL Championship last season has meant that Patrick has already played 40 post-season games plus three others at the Mastercard Memorial Cup. If anything, he was even better in the playoffs than during the regular season.
He credits the high stakes experience for helping him to this point.
“The hardest hockey comes when everything is on the line,” he said, while also crediting former Wheat Kings GM/coach Kelly McCrimmon’s role in his development.
“He makes you earn your spot and then gives you the opportunity to become a better player.”
Interestingly, McCrimmon has now moved on to the Vegas Golden Knights as the expansion club’s assistant GM. The new NHL club will pick no lower than sixth, and will probably select higher than that, which raises the interesting possibility of McCrimmon and Golden Knights GM George McPhee striding up to the lectern in Chicago and calling Patrick’s name.
The former pupil acknowledges that would be a nice development but too much time and variables have to fall in line before then.
“That would be cool but I also haven’t really talked to Kelly much,” said Patrick. “I will be happy to go to whoever picks me, it will be an honour.”
Another interesting element to the selection: Patrick appears ready to be the highest selection from his family. Father Steve Patrick, a former Wheat King as well, went 20th to Buffalo in 1980, and uncle James Patrick to the New York Rangers went ninth a year later to the New York Rangers.
Patrick says there are no bets, friendly or otherwise, in the family as to whether he can beat his father and uncle’s previous benchmark. But there is a natural moment of pride for the whole Patrick family. Steve Patrick had been retired for more than a decade by the time Nolan was born; he and Nolan’s mother Carrie put three kids through minor hockey in and around Winnipeg. Older sister Maddie is a player at the University of British Columbia and younger sister Aimee is playing minor hockey in the Manitoba capital.
“I’ve had a lot of support from my family,” said Nolan Patrick. “I remember my uncle playing a bit when I was young but for my dad and my mom (Carrie), who was a stay-at- home mom, they really put in a lot (of time)…when we were really young (my sisters and I) didn’t really like it that much but minor hockey became part of the (family).”
Written by Peter Robinson