By Dan Silver (@dsilver88)
Background – Lottery Jubilation
Just over a week ago, on April 29, the Philadelphia Flyers parlayed a 7.2 percent chance of moving into the top three picks of the NHL Draft into the second overall pick. It was the biggest leap since the NHL instituted the lottery process in 1995.
You can read my take on the jubilation that followed right here on PhillyIsFlyer.com.
It was a potentially franchise-altering occurrence. The Flyers have the top group of goaltending and defense prospects in the NHL, and I don’t even think it’s close.
However, the organization lacks an elite franchise forward to build the team around. Think an Eric Lindros, a Peter Forsberg, a Connor McDavid, an Auston Matthews. It was conceivably the one thing that could prevent this prospect-rich franchise from being able to compete with the Maple Leafs and Oilers in the future.
According to basically everyone, the 2017 NHL Draft has a consensus top two players – Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier – and both are centers. Obtaining the second pick in the draft seemingly guaranteed that the Flyers would add a franchise forward for a long time moving forward.
However, one of the two players has an increasingly storied history of injuries, and in this piece we are going to take a deep dive on that injury history and on historic precedence of high drafts picks with similar concerns going into the draft.
Assumption – If Healthy, Patrick is a Stud
This article is going to assume that Nolan Patrick will be a number one or number two NHL center for the next decade on whatever team drafts him. The 6’3″, 200 lb center complements terrific vision on the ice with great passing and shooting ability, strong play in his own zone, and above average skating. In 2015-16, as a teammate of the Flyers Russian rookie sensation Ivan Provorov, Patrick led the Brandon Wheat Kings to the Western Hockey League (WHL) championship.
Any player can become a bust, but for the purposes of this article, we’re assuming that if healthy, he’s a stud.
Nolan Patrick’s Unofficial Injury History
The following list has been compiled from web reports and does not include day-to-day injuries. Thanks to Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) for doing the legwork.
- 2011-12 – Broken Collarbone
- 2012-13 – Broken Collarbone (Missed three months)
- 2014-15 – Groin/Lower Body Injury (Missed one month)
- 2016 – Offseason Sports Hernia Surgery
- 2016-17 – Groin/Lower Body Injury (Missed three months)
- 2016-17 – Knee/Lower Body Injury
This is the injury that ended Nolan Patrick’s 2017 season. Clearly a knee/leg that has nothing to do with sports hernia, groin or abdomen pic.twitter.com/BFv7ZoAjmk
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) May 1, 2017
Let’s agree that the broken collarbones can be considered fluky and somewhat minor as bones tend to heal stronger after a break. However, as Flyers fans have seen over the years, (read Giroux and Ghost this season), hip/groin injuries can linger, and knee problems also tend to resurface.
And when you start talking about many months missed due to Sports Hernia surgery, a separate knee/lower body injury in the same season, and the separate broken collarbones, it’s hard not to think that we are dealing with a player who is injury prone.
One of the saving graces from a hockey perspective is that insofar as we know, Patrick has not sustained any concussions.
But it’s fairly clear that we are dealing with a player who, so far in his young career, has been injured nearly as often as he’s been healthy.
Potentially Mitigating Arguments
I’ve heard a few arguments from Flyers followers about why the Patrick injury history might not hold much water. Let’s consider…
“Nolan Patrick is a big player and the injuries were a result of his body growing into itself”
I’m not a doctor, so I can’t get into the physiology of whether or not this theory makes sense. However, during the course of my research for this article (we’ll get to that later), I looked at the top three NHL picks each of the previous 25 years. There have been a lot of big players drafted. I only found a few with the same type of injury history as Patrick, and those players didn’t find much NHL success. I didn’t see any major correlation between size and a history of injuries. So I’m not buying this one.
“Nolan Patrick played the entire regular season and playoffs in 2015-16, and that should mitigate any concern over his injuries in surrounding seasons”
While Patrick missed most most of the 2016-17 season with the hip/groin/knee injuries, you just have to go to the previous year to see that he is capable of playing through an entire season without any major injuries. In 2015-16, he played in 72 regular season games and 21 playoff games, racking up 132 points. Furthermore, the season before that, in 2014-15, he played in a combined 74 games. These facts make me feel better about Patrick’s ability to stay healthy for a full season, but not quite as good as if he didn’t have such an injury-riddled draft year.
“Players get injured, you can’t predict when injuries happen, and the Flyers should take Nolan Patrick no matter what if he’s available”
This doesn’t make any sense to me. Not just in hockey, but in life, I try to view every situation on its own merits. If I’m looking to adopt a dog, and one of them has bitten four people, and the other hasn’t bitten any, that’s going to play into my decision. The dog with a previous history of violence is more likely to be violent in the future. You can’t simply ignore the past. Patrick was the consensus number one draft prospect heading into the 2016-17 season. However, due to his injuries, scouts are now split on whether he or Hischier is the top guy. As we’ll see later, there haven’t been too many players drafted in the top three with Patrick’s history of missed games, and it would certainly represent a risk for the Flyers.
25 Years of Top 3 Picks – How Does Patrick’s Injury Past Stack Up?
For the purposes of this article, I’ve researched the Top 3 picks in the NHL Draft over the past 25 years – a total of 75 players.
I looked at how many regular season games each of those players participated in during their draft season and also in the season prior to that – two total years of data for each player. I only used regular season games because I didn’t want to hold it against a player (for injury purposes) if their team did not make the playoffs.
Of the 75 total players I researched, for the sake of a games-played comparison to Patrick I focused on the 41 guys who played both their draft season and their prior season in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) – either the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), or the Western Hockey League (WHL). These are the major Canadian developmental leagues for draft-eligible players.
My reasoning behind only using the CHL is that teams play many fewer games in the non-CHL leagues, either overseas or abroad. There’s really no great way to compare the players who were in those leagues on a games-played basis with Patrick.
That being said, if it was clear that a non-CHL Top 3 pick was dealing with injury issues, I did some research into that.
Nolan Patrick played 33 regular season games his draft season, and 72 games the prior season, for a total of 105 games played in those two seasons.
Of the 41 CHL prospects who were taken top three in the NHL Draft over the past 25 years, only five of them played in fewer than 105 regular season games the previous two seasons, and only one of those five played in fewer than 33 games his draft season.
Let’s take a look at those players…
Alex Galchenyuk – 3rd Overall Pick – 2012 NHL Draft
Galchenyuk is the only top three pick in the last 25 years who played in fewer than the 33 games that Patrick played in his draft season. He tore his ACL early in his draft season, and came back to play two regular season games and six playoff games for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
He has turned into an extremely good NHL Player, putting up 30 goals in 2015-16 for the Montreal Canadiens.
However, I don’t think that he’s a good comparable for Patrick, because prior to blowing out his knee, Galchenyuk had no known injury history.
Erik Gudbranson – 3rd Overall Pick – 2010 NHL Draft
Gudbranson, a towering defenseman, played in a combined 104 regular season CHL games his two seasons leading up to the draft. He sustained a knee injury that kept him out approximately half of his draft year. Mark Seidel, a scout from The Hockey News, mentioned “concerns about his propensity to get hurt.”
He has had a disappointing NHL career to this point, and was traded at last year’s deadline to the Canucks for a prospect and a few picks. The injury issues have persisted as well, with only one NHL season playing more than 70 games. He missed most of this past season with a wrist injury.
Gudbranson is a defenseman and wasn’t nearly as touted as Patrick headed into the draft. But from a purely injury-focused perspective, he’s a player who had injury concerns headed into the draft and those concerns have become reality as he has struggled to become an impact NHL defenseman.
Nathan MacKinnon – 1st Overall Pick – 2013
From a skill perspective, MacKinnon is the best fit so far of the three guys we’ve examined. He’s a few inches smaller than Patrick, and a better skater, but they have similar skill sets.
He played in a combined 102 regular season games in the two seasons leading up to his draft. MacKinnon missed half of his draft season with a knee injury, but still scored 75 points in 44 regular season games and then led the Halifax Mooseheads to the QMJHL championship with 33 points in 17 playoff games.
MacKinnon has been a very good NHL player to this point, and hasn’t sustained any major injuries.
However, with no documented injury history before the knee issue with Halifax, and the fact that he led his team to the title leading up to the draft, he’s not a good injury comparable to Patrick.
Jonathan Drouin – 3rd Overall Pick – 2013
MacKinnon’s linemate in Halifax, the diminutive Drouin only played in 82 regular season games the two seasons leading into the NHL draft. The year before the draft, he started out the season with his midget club, which is the reason that he only played in 33 regular season games. During his draft year, Drouin only played in 49 games, missing the beginning of the season with a foot injury.
Similar to MacKinnon, after returning from the injury Drouin tore up the QMJHL, scoring 105 points in those 49 games and adding 35 more points in the championship run.
Drouin has not had any injury problems in the NHL and has become one of the biggest playmaking threats in the league.
He hasn’t sustained any major injuries or surgeries and is not a good comparable for Patrick.
Connor McDavid – 1st Overall Pick – 2015
McDavid, arguably the best player in the NHL right now, played 103 combined regular season games in the two seasons leading up to the draft. The reason for this was that he broke his hand in a fight during his draft year and only played in 47 regular season games.
One fluky broken hand doesn’t represent an injury history, so you can’t compare McDavid to Patrick on the health front.
Plus, we’re talking about McDavid here. Even if he had Patrick’s injury history leading up to the draft, he still would have gone first overall based on his skills.
In case you were curious, here are the other 36 players drafted in the NHL’s top three picks since 1992 who played in the CHL for two seasons leading up to the draft and had more than Patrick’s 105 combined regular season games:
- Mike Rathje – 1992 – 3rd Overall
- Alexandre Daigle – 1993 – 1st Overall
- Chris Pronger – 1993 – 2nd Overall
- Chris Gratton – 1993 – 3rd Overall
- Wade Redden – 1995 – 2nd Overall
- J.P. Dumont – 1996 – 3rd Overall
- Joe Thornton – 1997 – 1st Overall
- Patrick Marleau – 1997 – 2nd Overall
- Vincent Lecavalier – 1998 – 1st Overall
- Brad Stuart – 1998 – 3rd Overall
- Jason Spezza – 2001 – 2nd Overall
- Rick Nash – 2002 – 1st Overall
- Jay Bouwmeester – 2002 – 3rd Overall
- Eric Staal – 2003 – 2nd Overall
- Nathan Horton – 2003 – 3rd Overall
- Cam Barker – 2004 – 3rd Overall
- Sidney Crosby – 2005 – 1st Overall
- Bobby Ryan – 2005 – 2nd Overall
- Jordan Staal – 2006 – 2nd Overall
- Steven Stamkos – 2008 – 1st Overall
- Drew Doughty – 2008 – 2nd Overall
- Zach Bogosian – 2008 – 3rd Overall
- John Tavares – 2009 – 1st Overall
- Matt Duchene – 2009 – 3rd Overall
- Taylor Hall – 2010 – 1st Overall
- Tyler Seguin – 2010 – 2nd Overall
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – 2011 – 1st Overall
- Gabriel Landeskog – 2011 – 2nd Overall
- Jonathan Huberdeau – 2011 – 3rd Overall
- Nail Yakupov – 2012 – 1st Overall
- Ryan Murray – 2012 – 2nd Overall
- Aaron Ekblad – 2014 – 1st Overall
- Sam Reinhart – 2014 – 2nd Overall
- Leon Draisatl – 2014 – 3rd Overall
- Dylan Strome – 2015 – 3rd Overall
- Pierre Luc-Dubois – 2016 – 3rd Overall
An Interesting non-CHL Draft Comparable
Patrik Stefan – 1st Overall Pick – 1999
In my research on the CHL Top 3 draft picks, I was unable to find a close comparable to Nolan Patrick, in terms of skill level and injury history.
However, another player caught my eye as one who might be worthy of further examination.
Patrik Stefan was a 6’2″, 210 lb center who had all the physical tools to become a dominant number one center in the NHL.
Czech-born, Stefan came over to the United States the season (1997-98) before he was draft-eligible to play with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the now-defunct International Hockey League (IHL), a minor league that was trying to be on par with the American Hockey League.
He had good success there, especially considering he was playing against professionals, and decided to remain in the IHL for his 1998-99 draft-eligible season.
The scouting reports on him from this thehockeywriters.com article sound very similar to those of Nolan Patrick:
“He is a big, strong play-maker who sees the ice very well. The early consensus from scouts is that he could be the first overall pick next year in the NHL Entry Draft. He is going to be a dominating, play-making center. He is a guy who looks to make the play rather than shoot himself. He’ll be a guy who can get 100 assists and 20-25 goals in the NHL.” – John Van Boxmeer, coach of the Ice Dogs
“Patrik is a world-class player. He is a good skater, a tenacious player, very skilled with the puck and possesses excellent size, strength and work ethic.” – LA Kings General Manager Dave Taylor
“I have followed Patrik’s progress since December of 1995. The impression he left with me then and throughout the various tournaments I have seen him play, is that he is the brightest young prospect developed in the Czech Republic since Jaromir Jagr, ” said Bob Owen of RHO Hockey, a scouting agency.
The questions about Stefan going into the draft focused on his injury history. He suffered a documented concussion the season going into the draft, along with general injury concerns that came to fruition as documented in this 2002 article at www.hockeysfuture.com:
“Stefan has had problems with injuries. For his first few years with the Thrashers, just when he would recover from one and start playing better, he would suffer another injury. These injuries included a broken jaw, a hyper-extended elbow, a broken nose, and concussions, a recurring problem for Patrik that had scouts worried about his future at the time of his draft.”
The concerns didn’t prevent the Atlanta Thrashers from taking Stefan first overall, in front of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who went second and third, respectively.
Stefan is now considered one of the biggest draft busts of all time. He scored 188 points in his seven NHL seasons, suffering numerous injuries along the way that resulted in him playing only one full NHL season.
For what it’s worth, outside of the Sedin twins, the 1999 NHL Draft ended up being pretty weak, with Nick Boynton (21) and Martin Havlat (26) as the only other NHL All-Stars.
All this considered, one could argue that Patrik Stefan’s combination of size, skill, and pre-draft injury history is the most similar to Nolan Patrick’s of any Top 3 pick in the previous 25 years.
Conclusions – Mostly Uncharted Territory
Well, what did we learn from all this information on possible Flyers draft pick Nolan Patrick and a deep dive into the top three NHL Draft Picks from the last quarter century?
Not Many Comparables
In the previous 25 years, only five players have been drafted among the NHL’s top three picks that spent their final two pre-draft seasons in the CHL and played in fewer combined regular season games than Nolan Patrick – Galchenyuk, Gudbranson, MacKinnon, Drouin, McDavid.
Of those players, the only one with a documented history of injuries leading up to the draft was Gudbranson, who thus far has had a disappointing NHL career. This is partly due to injuries.
The only one of those five players who played in fewer than the 33 regular season games that Patrick played in his actual draft season was Galchenyuk, who suffered a knee injury despite no documented past history problems. He has been a very good NHL scorer to this point.
One Alarming Comparison
Patrik Stefan, selected first overall in 1999, might be the closest comparable to Nolan Patrick. A similar player in terms of size and skill to Patrick, he entered the draft with injury concerns, and became a major bust.
However, he had a history of concussions, which Patrick doesn’t have, and that is a major difference. As we have seen with Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger, concussions can be completely debilitating and destroy a promising career.
Whichever team selects Nolan Patrick in the 2017 NHL Draft on Friday, June 23 in Chicago will be going into uncharted territory, at least in terms of recent history.
Over the past 25 years, there has not been a CHL prospect selected in the top three with a similar injury history to Nolan Patrick – a completely comprised draft season combined with a a litany of prior injuries.
What Should the Flyers Do?
Based on the research in this article, I strongly feel that Flyers fans should hope that the New Jersey Devils select Nolan Patrick and the injury risk that comes along him.
Nico Hischier’s upside is close to that of Patrick, and the risk of injuries derailing his NHL career is much lower.
However, if the Devils select Hischier, as top scout Craig Button is predicting, what should the Flyers do?
It all depends on how concerned Flyers GM Ron Hextall is about Patrick’s injury past, and the organization’s feelings on the other players available in the draft. Just because almost every scout in the public sphere has Patrick and Hischier as the consensus top two does not mean that the Flyers will see it that way.
Hextall may decide that Patrick’s very high ceiling isn’t enough to make up for his injury history and decide to take an alternate player that the organization thinks highly of and that doesn’t come along with the same risks.
Flyers fans should sleep comfortably knowing that Hextall and his staff have an excellent draft history and will perform all due diligence on Nolan Patrick.
That being said, it’s very clear that if the Flyers select Patrick, it will come with a largely unprecedented level of injury risk for a pick that high in the NHL Draft.