Philadelphia Flyers

Through his uncle's eyes: A glimpse behind Nolan Patrick's story

Through his uncle's eyes: A glimpse behind Nolan Patrick's story

In the basement of his Buffalo home, James Patrick was watching a hockey game with his brother and young nephew.

Between James and his brother Steve Patrick were 1,530 games of NHL experience. Both were first-round draft picks and James was now an assistant coach with the Sabres.

As they watched, the two were taken aback — by the 8-year-old sitting next to them. It was Nolan Patrick, reading a play and reacting as if he was a coach holding a clipboard.

"I was so shocked that an 8-year-old said that," James remembered vividly last week in a phone interview with "I will never forget that about him."

Nolan was dead-on.

"'Why did that player do that?'" James recalled his nephew saying. "'He shouldn't have done that, he should have done this.' And what he said, I was shocked because I saw the exact same thing. It was something that players do where in the coaching office, they're saying, 'What's he doing there? That's not the play to make.'"

Maybe it was innate hockey smarts. Maybe it was the product of growing up around two NHLers. For Nolan's uncle, James, it was a moment he realized the cerebral game.

"I know that has followed him, I know probably his strength as a hockey player is he has pretty good vision and hockey sense," James said. "I saw that early in him."

It's one of the traits that has transformed Nolan Patrick into one of two candidates for the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NHL entry draft come Friday in Chicago. Among the hockey world, the consensus is Patrick or Swiss-born Nico Hischier will go first overall to the Devils.

The Flyers will be waiting at No. 2. If Patrick, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, slips to second, what he could bring to Philadelphia his uncle knows well.

Tim Smith/Brandon Sun

James Patrick, who less than two weeks ago was named the head coach of the WHL's Kootenay ICE, became an influence on Nolan's hockey upbringing. He played parts of 21 seasons in the NHL and has coached for the Sabres and Stars, but the relationship with his nephew pushed Nolan just as much.

"I saw him play a bit when he was 7, 8 years old," James said. "I remember seeing him around 10, 11 years old, scoring a real big goal. By that time, you could definitely tell he was one of the best players on his team as a young kid growing up."

Later on, James would watch Nolan's games whenever he had a chance. As an assistant coach in Buffalo from 2006-2013, a road swing near Winnipeg allowed James to sneak in time to watch Nolan from ages 12 to 15.

"One of those trips every year it seemed like he had a game the night before so I could go and watch his game," James said. "Go home and see my mom and dad, and then go with my brother and watch Nolan play."

And when he couldn't watch firsthand?

"I would see some a little bit on video that my brother would show me," James said. "I'm real close with my brother, so from the time [Nolan] was 10, 12, we would always talk about him and how he was doing hockey-wise."

Tim Smith/Brandon Sun

Both James and his brother Steve had summer cabins by the lake. That's where James began working out Nolan in his early development.

"Him and his buddy starting coming over and doing like a little workout I put them through," James said. "When they were 12, it was like three days a week doing all different body weights — chin-ups, pushups, dips, just body-weight squats, lunges, jumps and some runs, running hills. From about 12, 13, 14, I was able to train him and his best friend at the lake. And when he was 14, there was a gym that we would go to. I certainly got to be somewhat involved with him and it was a lot fun."

Hockey became more than just a hobby — it started looking like a future, which has now arrived. Patrick is a well-groomed 18-year-old on the cusp of hockey's greatest stage. He's 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, a center that climbed prospect rankings and draft boards while playing three seasons for the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings. His ability to create with the puck and comprehend a play is what makes him different.

"He's almost above the ice in his thinking aspect," Brandon GM Grant Armstrong said last month.

James said that's always been there with Nolan. So has the work ethic, going back to summers by the lake.

"He's never had an issue with working out," James said. "I think like any young kid, he needs guidance, too, he needs some advice for what's best for him. I know when I used to train with him when he was 14, him and his buddy, they worked their tails off. We would run hills, and I'd run with them, and they were killer. He could always do that. Nolan is always willing to do extra, but I think the workout programs now are so complex, I think guys need direction in that area and he's no different. But he's always been a real hard worker."

Along with his brother, James is like a second coach to Nolan. 

"They have been huge for me since I was really young," Nolan said earlier this month at the NHL Scouting Combine.

In fact, the brothers are probably, in part, a reason why Nolan is so grounded and coachable.

"Even with his team and the games and the ups and downs playing in Brandon, I just said, 'Hey, when all else fails, all you can do is work your tail off,'" James said. "When he was struggling, I said, 'You've got to skate. It's all about skating. Middle-lane drive, middle-lane drive — skate, spread.' There's times where he would backcheck so hard, and I'd say, 'OK, I want you skating that hard when you're going on the offense.' Because if you can backcheck like that, you can skate the same way offensively. So, yeah, they need coaches, but then I've definitely seen him do that — he's always taken advice well and he's done it."

AP Images

Every now and then, Nolan needs a kick in the butt — not to work hard or care, but to be assertive at first in new challenges. Once he does, it's game on, James said.

It's not necessarily a bad characteristic. James considers it a weakness and a strength.

"He almost always wants to be comfortable and then he really starts to exert himself," James said. "I felt like every playoff round in three years that he played with Brandon, the first game it was always like, 'Come on, let's get going.' He had to feel out who's good on their team, who he might be intimidated by, whatever, and then by Game 4, he was the best player on the ice. 

"I think that can also be a strength because I do know he is very competitive. He's competitive with guys that he's compared with, he will go head to head with them and he will be competitive, like he will try and be physical. But it's almost like, 'OK, I have to feel it out first,' but then, 'OK, now I know what this guy is about, now I'm going to run him, I'm going to play hard, I'm going to be hard on him.' He will play that way."

But …

"Still, I wish he did it right off the bat," James said with a laugh. "He's just always been when he feels comfortable, then he starts to really excel."

James is careful to compare Nolan to players from past or present.

"I know there is so much more focus and pressure on the kids now," he said.

But he knows what type of player Nolan can be and possibly become. James is familiar with players today and likened Nolan to San Jose's Joe Thornton, Nashville's Ryan Johansen and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, in terms of style — big, facilitating centers with skilled hands.

"That would be my hope for him, but I will say this, he's a 6-foot-3 center who can make passes," James said. "And he works hard and he's competitive. He might take two years to get to that level or who knows when he'll be ready, but that's my belief, what I see in him.

"I do know that the one thing he does is he does make plays, he can make passes. I watched a lot of games in Brandon, games where not much is going on but at the end of the night, he still made probably two or three high-end, point-blank plays where he set someone up. I've always felt he can be a big body who can make plays offensively, who can protect pucks."

Nolan is regarded as a true two-way player, one that can play in all situations and is focused on defensive responsibilities as much as his scoring production. That has led some to believe his offensive ceiling may not be as high.

"I don't think he's nowhere near as dynamic as a lot of the top players the last few years, but in saying that, if he's playing with some skilled guys, he will get them the puck, he will make plays," James said. "He's shown that he can do that. Certainly the last three years in the Western Hockey League, put the best players on the ice with him and they will get chances, and chances all night. I think that's what his offensive upside is."

In 2015-16 with the Wheat Kings, Patrick recorded 102 points on 41 goals and 61 assists for a plus-51 rating before putting up 30 more points (13 goals, 17 assists) during the playoffs en route to a WHL title.

This past season, he was never 100 percent healthy. He had sports hernia surgery the offseason prior, hampering his summer training, and was limited to 33 games and no postseason because of two separate injuries. Despite that, Patrick was still capable of producing 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists).

"Even playing injured for most of the year, he could still dominate some games and was still one of the top players out there," James said. "That's where he was in February of this year, I have no doubt and expect him to be stronger and healthier and even better in October of this year."

Now fully healthy, is Nolan NHL-ready?

"I don't know. I cannot even tell you that," James said. "I do think it hurt him playing only 33 games this year. I just think no matter what, for any 18-year-old, instead of playing 80 games including playoffs, you play 33. I think he's very close, put it that way.

"I do think for him, because of where he's at in junior and Brandon, I do think it's best for him to be in the NHL, but he's got to go out and earn that.

"I won't say he's as ready as other top draft picks, (Auston) Matthews or those guys the past few years, but I think he is very close."

Tim Smith/Brandon Sun

The draft process is almost over for Nolan.

James said it's nothing like what it used to be.

"I know he's been home working out since the season ended, then they were at the combine for a week, then they went to Nashville for a day and a half, then he visited New Jersey for a day and Philly for a day," James said. "It was like, 'Man, he was gone for like 10 days just before the draft.' Stuff like that would have never happened way back then."

Because of that, James wants to be there for support.

"In frustrating times, I just say, hey, try to enjoy this, just try to enjoy the moment," he said. "Have fun getting to know the other players that you're hanging out with. Time will pass and before you know it, you'll be drafted.

"I just try to talk to him about having fun, have fun and enjoy it. I said be pleasant — be pleasant to everyone you talk to."

Looking back on the earlier days, to that time in Buffalo or the summers by the lake, James said he never envisioned Nolan's becoming a potential No. 1 pick. He just wanted to help with his nephew's passion for hockey while letting the future play out.

It's all come to Nolan on the verge of being a top-two selection.

James, a ninth overall pick in 1981, knows Nolan will be just fine with the pressure that accompanies such a feat.

His advice is simple.

"I haven't said much, but I know once or twice I've just said, 'Listen, it's not going to make you any different of a player whether you get drafted first, second, third or fifth,'" James said. "'What's going to make you a better player is what you do moving forward, how hard you're willing to work, and getting bigger, faster, stronger.' That's what it comes down to."

Flyers captain Claude Giroux appears to embrace move to wing

Flyers captain Claude Giroux appears to embrace move to wing

VOORHEES, N.J. — Dave Hakstol brought up the idea on Monday and Claude Giroux appeared to embrace it.

The Flyers' captain switched to left wing during Tuesday’s practice on a line with Jakub Voracek at right wing and Sean Couturier in the middle.

“That’s funny because I was pretty much a winger all my life,” Giroux said. “I started playing center when I became a professional. It’s hard to complain when you’re playing with Jake and Coots.”

“I liked it,” Voracek said. “He (Giroux) is a very powerful guy, so he always skates into the space on the ice when there’s an opening. I think as a line we’ve been working pretty good. We understand each other. It’s one of the looks Hak might try in the preseason. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but I don’t know, if it’s long term, that means we’re playing good.” 

Over the years, Giroux has found a comfort zone creating a shot off the left half board, especially off the team’s power-play setup, and towards the end of Tuesday’s practice, Couturier was feeding Giroux one-timer after one-timer. 

“We did a lot of drills where I was coming down the left side there,” Giroux said. “I can see the ice pretty good from there because you have the puck on your good side. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s not like I'm against it or I’m not happy with it if it makes the team better. I know we have a lot of centermen. I’m up for the idea for sure.”

The second part of the experiment involves Sean Couturier and whether this type of move could also open up his untapped offensive side. The Flyers' best defensive center, Couturier has consistently scored between 34 and 39 points in each of the past four seasons, but has failed to take the next step to prove he can evolve into a top-six role. Needless to say, the seventh-year center embraced playing with two highly-skilled linemates.

Especially Giroux.

“It’s been six years we’ve been here and we’ve never really played with each other," Couturier said. "We’ve kind of played with everyone else but each other. Me and G have some good chemistry. The little odd shifts here and there we’d have together we’d seem to create something and get some scoring chances, so hopefully, we can make this work.” 

Giroux grew accustomed to playing right wing when he first entered the NHL under head coaches John Stevens and later Peter Laviolette. With Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere occupying the center spots, Giroux still found a way to thrive offensively as he scored 76 points to lead the Flyers in 2010-11, while also taking the second-most faceoffs on the team that season.  

“I think breakouts, when you’re on the right side for me, it’s easier to handle the puck and kind of chip it out and make a play, but offensively on the left side it’s a lot better," Giroux said. "When you come into the zone you got Coots going to the net and Jake on the weak side, I think it’s pretty exciting when you see that.” 

The decision to switch Giroux to wing also comes two days after Nolan Patrick turned in a solid effort in his preseason debut against the Islanders. If Patrick, who turned 19 years old on Tuesday, is to make the opening night roster in San Jose, California, it’s expected Hakstol will be forced to make some adjustments and rearrange some of his veterans up and down the lineup. So far in camp, Patrick, Valtteri Filppula, Couturier and Scott Laughton are the only ones who have not moved from their center positions.   

“I wouldn’t connect the dots to that (Patrick making the team) quite yet,” Hakstol said. “I think that’s too early of a connection to make. I think it’s obvious that we have a number of players that are good centermen. Jori Lehtera has jumped over to the left side for the first few practices and the first preseason game. Today, this gave us an opportunity to have Jori back up the middle, so no, I wouldn’t draw the connection directly towards Nolan Patrick at this point in time.” 

Giroux would not be the first established veteran to transition from center to wing later in his career, as the Flyers' captain mentioned Sharks forwards Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, two established centers who have also transitioned to the wing over the past few years in San Jose.

“They take faceoffs on their strong side and it's tough when you take faceoffs all game against the guy who’s on his strong side. It’s tough," Giroux said. "Maybe I’m not going to play one more shift on the wing, but that’s up to the coach, but I really liked it today.”  

We’ll see if the next experimental phase comes during Wednesday’s split-squad exhibition against the Islanders. With Hakstol coaching the team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he would probably want to see firsthand how that line operates.

Health check
Wayne Simmonds missed his second straight day of practice Tuesday, suggesting that Monday’s absence was more than what Hakstol has termed “a maintenance day.” Players are rarely given days off during camp, but the Flyers would not elaborate any further regarding Simmonds' status. A team spokesperson said Simmonds is scheduled to skate with the team Wednesday morning, however, it’s not known whether he will play in one of the Flyers' split-squad games against the Islanders.

On the blue line
Sam Morin and Robert Hagg, the Flyers' top-two picks from the 2013 draft class, appear to have separated themselves even further from their fellow rookie prospects. Travis Sanheim was moved to the afternoon group and AHL veteran T.J. Brennan was brought over to the morning practice with the NHL regulars. 

“It was nice to play with these guys at a little bit higher pace,” Brennan said. “Who knows what they’re thinking, but I’m just trying to give them the best I got and hopefully they get a good impression.”

Coming off an All-Star season with the Phantoms in 2016-17, the Willingboro, New Jersey, native and lifelong Flyers fan hasn’t played in the NHL since suiting up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in April 2016. 

“I’ve just learned to focus that energy in different spots,” Brennan said. “This time a year ago there was a little more anxiety involved. Now I think throughout the entire organization they have an idea of who I am, how I play and maybe how I can fit in.”  

Lines and pairings
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Oskar Lindblom-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Dale Weise
Michael Raffl-Jori Lehtera-Matt Read
Colin McDonald-Scott Laughton-Taylor Leier

Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Sam Morin-T.J. Brennan
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Finding two-way balance Scott Laughton's key to finally sticking with Flyers

USA Today Images

Finding two-way balance Scott Laughton's key to finally sticking with Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — The 2012 NHL entry draft is an excellent case study in how the career of an NHL prospect and the future of a first-round pick can venture in one of two directions.

Scott Laughton was the Flyers’ first-round selection that year, taken 20th overall. Laughton can begin to comprehend how that fork in the road has affected two guys selected just before him.

The Buffalo Sabres had a pair of first-round selections. With the 12th overall choice, the Sabres snatched Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, who was ranked third by NHL Central Scouting among all North American skaters. The Sabres came right back two picks later and grabbed another projected first-rounder, but not nearly as touted, Latvian Zemgus Girgensons.
In Grigorenko’s defense, Buffalo rushed him to the NHL at the age of 18, and clearly before he was ready. Over the course of the next three seasons, he bounced back and forth between the NHL and the AHL while never fully grasping that his skills weren’t quite good enough to be a top-six forward. In my conversations with coaches and GMs, Grigorenko also had a belief that he was a “superstar-in-the-making” whom the coaching staff was holding back and felt the “grunt work” of killing penalties and playing solid defense was reserved for players drafted much later than him. In 2015, the Sabres utilized what little value Grigorenko had left and shipped him to Colorado in a multi-player deal for star Ryan O’Reilly.   

At 18, Girgensons, unlike Grigorenko, spent the year he was drafted with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans. Because Girgensons committed to play in the NCAA and elected to go pro, he was eligible to play in the AHL. Girgensons developed more of a “blue-collar” approach as an effective penalty killer and has become the Sabres’ shutdown center who plays a very solid defensive game and is tough along the boards, all while continuing to improve at faceoffs.

Laughton, who was seated not too far from both guys at that draft in Pittsburgh that year, is starting to figure out the best way to secure an NHL job is taking the Girgensons approach to the game, and not the one paved by Grigorenko.

“I think I was caught in between there for a little bit, and that’s why I was up and down,” Laughton said Monday. “I still think I can be an offensive threat and be a good offensive guy, but I think I’ve got to take care of my own zone. I think just taking that defensive approach. I think that’s what’s going to help me stay in this league.”

Laughton’s evolution as a better two-way player was evident during Sunday’s preseason opener against the Islanders when the line of Laughton, Matt Read and Michael Raffl was tasked with shutting down the Isles’ top line of John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee. Even though Tavares scored twice, his tallies weren’t at the expense of Laughton or his linemates.

“I thought playing to his role, he did an outstanding job — in the faceoff dot, killing penalties, strong two-way play," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Sunday. "He did a real good job."

Laughton may have been the Flyers’ forgotten recent first-rounder last season after spending the entire year, minus two games, with the Phantoms in Lehigh Valley. The experience was immeasurable, as he sacrificed offensive glory to become the type of player the organization had envisioned.
“I think that was the biggest thing, not playing power play, just being down there taking key faceoffs and just finding my role I think,” Laughton said. “It’s nice when you have a good year in the minors. I know it’s a different league. I’m kind of building off last year and that’s what I’m trying to do. Just coming to camp, be prepared and play hard against guys. Do what I did last year and it’ll take me a long way.”

General manager Ron Hextall recognized that progression and elected to protect the younger Laughton in the June expansion draft over 32-year-old Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had established himself as a solid checking-line center during his three years in Philadelphia.

“Definitely was a surprise,” Laughton said of being protected. “I didn’t see it coming at all, but it felt good. I’ve been in this organization for five years now and I’m still trying to stick around and become a full-time NHLer, and I truly believe this is my year.”

Perhaps Laughton will develop into the Flyers’ version of Girgensons, one of two All-Stars from that 2012 draft class, who just re-signed with the Sabres for two more years at $3.2 million. As for Grigorenko, the Colorado Avalanche, unquestionably the worst non-expansion team in the NHL entering this season, elected to cut him loose this summer. Grigorenko inked a deal in July to play in the KHL. A promising one-time prospect‘s NHL career appears to be over at the age of 23.

Loose pucks
• The Flyers cut two more players from their training camp roster, which now stands at 55. Forward Anthony Salinitri was returned to his junior team, the Sarnia Sting. Defenseman Frank Hora will report to the Phantoms starting Thursday.

• Hakstol elected to split his two groups Monday into an NHL morning group and an AHL afternoon group, although the two teams will be combined when the Flyers play split-squad games against the New York Islanders Wednesday — one at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the other at Barclays Center in New York.

• Forward Wayne Simmonds was not on the ice for Monday’s practice. Hakstol said Simmonds was given a maintenance day.  

• For the first time since camp opened Friday, the Flyers worked on Hakstol’s systems, which included more structure on the team’s breakouts. Much of the focus through the first four days has been on individual battles in close quarters. One drill included intense 1-on-1 play with a goaltender at one end of the faceoff circle and another goalie directly across from him. “It’s important in today’s hockey because every single team overloads in the defensive zone,” Jakub Voracek said. “You need to win those battles, 1-on-1 and 2-on-2, they’re really important."

Monday's lines and pairings
Oskar Lindblom-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek
Dale Weise-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Taylor Leier
Jori Lehtera-Valtteri Filppula-Colin McDonald
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Matt Read

Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Sam Morin-Travis Sanheim
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas