At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, if you’d asked me whether there was a realistic contender for Nolan Patrick at first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, my answer would have been simple: No.
Patrick, who was only a few days away from being in the mix as a top-5 pick in the 2016 class, was fresh off 41-goal, 102-point sophomore season in the WHL as the league’s fifth-leading scorer. He posted 26 more points than the next highest scoring under-18 WHL player, Matthew Phillips — who was three months older and in the draft class ahead of him.
But this season, when a pair of injuries set back his development, Patrick was limited to 46 points in 33 games and forced to withdraw from international play — and later the playoffs.
And in the meantime, flashy Swiss scorer Nico Hischier emerged as a legitimate option at first overall, a player of equal parts explosive skating and deft handling.
Here’s the thing about Patrick, though: He’s so far ahead of his peers as a multi-threat center that the gap could never truly be closed.
Stylistically, Patrick is an excellent skater linearly and an above average one laterally, tracking well with strong, fluid crossovers in tight. Patrick also uses a compact stride to efficiently accelerate from a standstill, which, for a player of his weight (roughly 200 pounds) and size (6’3) makes him a lot to handle off the rush.
Not only is Patrick the best passing center in the class as a heads-up, confident carrier, he’s also a heavy shooter, with a low-kick wrist shot that can overpower goalies on minimal drawback and a one-touch slapshot that is hard and — most importantly — accurate. As a shooter, passer, and handler, Patrick is also capable of making plays off of his backhand, something a lot of high-end teenaged players aren’t confident enough in.
But the one trait that separates Patrick as the best player — and prospect — in the class, is his ability as a possession-driving, play-dictating player with and without the puck. On the cycle, Patrick’s strength, low center of gravity, and heavy puck pursuit allow him not only to get in on loose pucks but to win the ensuing battles and use his body to navigate away from traffic with full control. In tight to his body, Patrick handles the puck extremely well and uses heel-to-heel movement to protect the puck. When he loses it, which is rare once he’s emerged from a 50/50 battle, Patrick does an exceptional job gaining the inside track on opponents for a quick stick lift or man-on-man check to gain the upper hand.
It’s this talent, mainly without the puck, that enables Patrick to consistently gain and maintain control of possession for extended offensive zone shifts on the cycle. And because he’s unselfish as a handler, Patrick rarely hangs on to the puck too long. His quick, decisive decision-making opens up space for himself to re-receive passes and make lateral plays across the offensive zone to beat goalies and defenders as a unit, rather than individually.
Watch the possession below, from the beginning of this season, as Patrick thrice hounds the puck, wins possession, makes a quick play, and ultimately picks up on a loose play in the slots and scores.
Notice too, how Patrick handles the puck in his feet and splays his legs to move laterally and track below the net to protect control:
Nolan Patrick is either going to control the puck or he's going to go find the puck. pic.twitter.com/P5ksoBo3Y4— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) October 12, 2016
When a player is as talented as Patrick, it’s that puck pursuit that allows them to quickly transition to the next level and make plays when the speed of the game picks up. Patrick doesn’t retrieve quietly, either. He retrieves physically, engaging to overpower opposing players and create time and space with body position rather than overwhelming with speed and footwork. (Which isn’t to take away from his skating, he moves extremely well away from the puck.)
This season, when healthy, Patrick was also able to continue to thrive as one of the WHL’s best players after his Brandon Wheat Kings lost their core to WHL graduations for David Quenneville (New Jersey Devils, 30th overall), Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia Flyers, seventh overall) and Jayce Hawryluk (Florida Panthers, 32nd overall). Had Patrick played a full season, his 100-point pace (72-game season) would have given him a 13-point margin over Reid Duke’s (Vegas Golden Knights) 87-point pace as Brandon’s leading scorer.
While his age (Patrick turns 19 in September) and injury history are worthwhile concerns, they don’t mitigate his ability as a heavyset, strong center who can create plays as a passer, shooter, carrier, and active retriever. A summer of productive rehab should put Patrick in a possession to step into the NHL and thrive as a top-nine center next season.
Note: Scott Wheeler is a senior scout with scouting service Future Considerations. He also formerly scouted the NHL draft for McKeen’s Hockey. This is the first in a series of 2017 NHL Draft profiles he’ll be writing for SB Nation. You can follow him at @scottcwheeler.