A few weeks after the Flyers made him the second overall selection in this year’s NHL draft, Nolan Patrick was at rookie camp in July, unable to participate because he was still recovering from abdominal surgery. He was asked what it would mean to him if he made the Flyers’ opening-night roster this season.
“That would be a huge honor,” he said, the culmination of both a lifelong dream and a goal he had set for himself three years ago, when he was still playing junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
It was a humble thing for Patrick to say, and at some level, you would expect a hockey player, any hockey player, to say something similar. It’s the culture of the sport. But even by hockey standards, this seemed an excessively humble thing for Patrick to say. He was so highly regarded as a prospect that, had he been old enough to qualify for the 2016 draft, he would have been a top-five pick. And had he not suffered those abdominal injuries, he likely would have been the No. 1 pick this year. Look at the recent history of players selected first or second in the draft; They generally make immediate impacts. It would have been reasonable for Patrick to expect to do the same, unless he was already familiar with the philosophy of his new general manager.
If he was, he would have known that Ron Hextall did not and does not necessarily share those same expectations, no matter how reasonable they might seem. Yes, Patrick will be on the Flyers’ roster when they open the regular season Wednesday night in San Jose against the Sharks, but the mere fact that he is 19 years old was enough to make his retention a bit of a surprise.
Hextall holds firm, based on research and number-crunching that he says he has done, to the belief that age 23 is something of a sweet spot for an NHL player, the age when it becomes sensible and prudent to count on that player to be a major contributor to a quality team. There are outliers: Ivan Provorov was one last season, and Patrick might be one this season. But when you consider the rookies who competed for spots on the Flyers’ opening-night roster, it’s not coincidental that forward Taylor Leier (23) made the team over Oskar Lindblom (21) and that defenseman Robert Hagg (who will turn 23 in February) appears to have a more solidified place, at least for now, than Travis Sanheim (21) or Sam Morin (who turned 22 in July).
“I don’t like putting a young kid in the National Hockey League and having him play 7-8 minutes,” Hextall said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe you go play in the American League. Now, there’s the odd exception to that. … But Travis Konecny, if I thought he was going to play seven minutes last year? Not a chance. He’s going back to junior.”
Hextall is so committed to this model of team-building that he has lapsed into some revisionist history in defense of it. He has mentioned, for instance, that he views Mike Keenan’s hiring as head coach as a precedent and model for hiring Dave Hakstol: a young, unknown coach who can extract excellence from a young team. And the 1984-85 Flyers were the youngest team in the league then and included four rookies who had yet to turn 22: Rick Tocchet, Murray Craven, Peter Zezel, and Derrick Smith.
“You look at the Derrick Smiths and the Rick Tocchets — they weren’t huge parts of that team,” Hextall said. “They were good players. They were young. But they weren’t top-six forwards. So you’ve got to be careful giving a kid too much, expecting too much, setting them up for failure. Every circumstance is different. Every year is different.”
Smith and Tocchet were indeed third-line forwards on that 1984-85 team, which finished with the NHL’s best record and reached the Stanley Cup Finals. But Craven, at 20, scored 26 goals, and Zezel, at 19, was an asset on the power play and was nearly a point-per-game player (61 points, 65 games). No matter: Hextall prefers to err on patience’s side.
“You can think you’ve got everything figured out, and truly, you don’t,” he said. “Every player matures and gets to the level that you expect them to get to — if, in fact, they get there — at a different time period. We can sit and say, ‘OK, Player X is absolutely freaking rising. One more year at junior, and he’s going to play in the NHL.’ We don’t know how his year at junior is going to go.”
That’s a fine, and even laudable, position to take, provided one thing: that when these young players are given their opportunities, they produce. The longer a team waits for a prospect to mature, the fairer it is to expect more from that prospect when he finally enters the lineup. By that measure, Provorov and Konecny ought to be greater contributors this season, and the rookies — Patrick, Hagg, whoever might follow them — can play like rookies for only so long. That’s the standard Ron Hextall has established. It’s reasonable to expect the Flyers’ youngsters to meet it.