QUEBEC CITY – The CHL Top Prospects Game is Monday night and the timing could not be better for Brandon Wheat Kings star Nolan Patrick. The No. 1 prospect for the 2017 draft has been excellent when he’s been in the lineup, but an undisclosed injury limited his first half to just 11 games.
Since returning to the Wheat Kings, the big center has posted eight points in five games, including a four-spot he dropped on Kootenay in his first match back.
So does he feel any pressure to perform in Quebec?
“Maybe a little bit, just to show I’m back at full speed here,” Patrick said. “I’m not trying to think about it too much or put any added pressure on myself.”
The game has been set up a bit as a showdown between Patrick, who captains Team Cherry, and Halifax’s Nico Hischier, who will wear the ‘C’ for Team Orr. Hischier, of course, was dynamite for Switzerland at the world juniors. Patrick’s injury kept him from trying out for Canada and given how advanced he is, next year’s tournament may not be in the cards either if he goes straight to the NHL.
“I didn’t pout about it or dwell on it,” Patrick said. “I just turned my focus to supporting my teammate, Kale Clague. I watched him play every game and he represented our team really well. It sucks to miss out on a chance to represent your country, but I just focused on my rehab.”
Patrick stayed in Winnipeg for his rehab, visiting several doctors and then working with his skills and strength coaches. For those of us who monitor the draft, it was difficult to pin down exactly when the young star would return, not to mention the exact malady. Patrick did have sports hernia surgery in the summer, but even some NHL execs couldn’t ascertain how or if the new injury was related to that. Nonetheless, the kid is back and from what I’ve seen so far, he’s ready to dominate.
“I probably could have played about two weeks earlier, but I wanted to be 100 percent and make sure I wasn’t going to tweak it,” Patrick said. “It’s good now; no pain.”
Which is great to hear, because Patrick certainly has a lot of qualities that NHL teams look for in a player. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Jonathan Toews with perhaps a lower ceiling.
“He’s got legit two-way abilities,” said one scout. “A big man who can skate, he’s got some gamebreaker qualities. He’ll be a No. 2 center in the NHL.”
That last part may not sound impressive, until you realize how hard it is to make an impact in the NHL. We’ve been spoiled by Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but most drafts don’t produce phenoms right off the hop. Patrick probably fits into a range with first overall picks such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nathan MacKinnon and that’s solid company for a teenager.
Overall, the 2017 draft class will likely require some patience. Patrick missed the 2016 draft by four days thanks to his late September birthday, so he’ll almost assuredly make the jump straight to the NHL. Hischier, who has a pretty good parallel to draw from in fellow Mooseheads alumni Nikolaj Ehlers, may or may not make the leap. And some of the most intriguing defensemen in the crop – Timothy Liljegren, Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen – aren’t giants, but deft puckhandlers who may need time to bulk up. Other prospects need to work on their skating or round out their games.
Some scouts even believe the draft is so wide open that seven or eight players could be options to go first overall at this point. Does that sound crazy? Again, we’ve become so accustomed to sure-thing drafts that it’s easy to forget the days when Seth Jones was ahead of MacKinnon in some rankings.
For Patrick, just getting drafted is the gateway to his NHL dream. The Top Prospects Game will be a great showcase, but the youngster knows he has a ways to go.
“There’s a lot of hockey to be played,” he said, “before anybody gets picked.”