I’m well aware that Nolan Patrick hasn’t played in an NHL game since April 2, 2019. The migraine issues that caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season, including the playoff bubble that began two months shy of when the 2020-21 season would have begun in a normal world, are not lost on me. They could continue to make his consistent availability for the team tenuous. I got slaughtered on social media prior to the 2019-20 season when I said I didn’t believe he’d play a single game that season. That’s because I know from personal experience that migraines -even ones with an identified cause- are no joke. Migraines that happen frequently without a discernible trigger are even more jarring. Former Flyers captain Keith Primeau -whose career was derailed by concussions- told us a few months ago on Snow The Goalie that Patrick’s health away from the ice was the most important thing to focus on, even if it meant considering retirement.

Although he didn’t want to address the medical issues that kept him out of meaningful game action for 21 months -which is totally understandable for a number of reasons- it’s probably safe to assume his day-to-day life has improved leaps and bounds since he’s been cleared for contact as a full participant in practice and games.

All of this is a long-winded setup for a declaration that should come as a relief to anyone and everyone who roots for the kid and the team: Nolan Patrick looks better than ever. Sure, it’s just practice, but it’s essential that we examine the evidence we have at our disposal. His stick work in drills and scrimmages has been what you’d expect of a #2 overall pick who was long considered the top prospect in his draft class. But, something else stood out over the past two days of camp, his speed and decisive play:

Obviously, no one was standing in the media area with a stopwatch clocking Patrick’s 200ft. end-to-end time, but the 22-year-old’s play was faster. It could be a result of him continuing to grow and reach the level of explosiveness you’d expect to see as a guy matures from a teenager to someone in their 20s. From what I saw, his decision-making was exponentially more decisive than a couple of seasons ago. When his line was sprung on a counterattack, he displayed excellent vision and awareness of where his linemates James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek were, hitting them in stride and finding them in advantageous scoring positions. His decision-making speed and recognition of when to go all-out versus changing speed and holding up play is vastly improved. He wove in and out of defenders behind the net, displaying some elite stick work in tight spaces that kept possession while his linemates got in position to unload on the net. He simply does not look like a guy who’s missed any time.

If there’s fear about what will happen when he takes his first big hit of the season, let Wednesday’s friendly fire decking from 6’7″ defenseman-turned-left-wing Samuel Morin offer a bit of reassurance:

Patrick didn’t miss a shift after getting slammed by a freight train.

To be clear, Alain Vigneault is putting a lot of pressure on Nolan Patrick, but that also comes with the faith that he’ll excel. I’m not totally sold on the line combination, as none of the three are widely thought of as exceptional two-way players. While they may lack a true speed threat, the line combination could prove to be absolutely deadly in their offensive zone, as they possess a true ability to possess and move the puck at will.

If Nolan Patrick can unlock the scoring ability of JVR and execute on opportunities created by the dynamic playmaking of Voracek, the trio will solidify the Flyers as one of the deepest forward groups in the Eastern Conference. While it’s probably fair to be concerned about Nolan Patrick’s health and there’s a healthy skepticism of his ability to get up up to game speed after such a long time away, earlier this week his outspoken linemate Jakub Voracek offered up a reassuring take on where things stand with the former #2 overall pick:

He’s ready. You can tell he’s ready. It’s a good sign to see him out there. I wasn’t concerned after I saw him practice the last few days.

If practice is any indication of future performance, Nolan Patrick will be the key to taking this team from the the upper-middle of a packed division all the way to the top. And that’s not a prediction. It’s a spoiler.

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