This week, Ron Hextall left the door ajar for Nolan Patrick.
Not the one that guaranteed his spot on the Flyers' roster, but rather the opening that Patrick could actually return to Brandon of the Western Hockey League for the upcoming season, where he would resume his junior career since he's ineligible to play for the Phantoms.
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"We're going to have Nolan Patrick for the next 10, 15 years, not one day or one month or two months," general manager Ron Hextall told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We're looking at the next 15 years and what's best for Nolan Patrick. If it's best to go back to Brandon, then he'll go back to Brandon. If it's best to stay here, he'll stay here."
Since taking over the general manager duties from Paul Holmgren in 2014, Hextall has remained consistent and unwavering in his assertions that all rookies have to earn their way onto the Flyers' roster, and that hasn't changed since his first-ever selection of Travis Sanheim in 2014. Draft position is merely a starting point in Hextall's grand plans.
Additionally, not every second overall selection in the NHL draft is created equally, and more importantly, with NHL-ready attributes. For every Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel and Tyler Seguin, you will also come across Sam Reinhart, Ryan Murray and James van Riemsdyk, who enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for two seasons before eventually joining the Flyers.
Take those six players, devise a scale based on skill level, and who knows where you might slot Patrick. He's missed an extensive amount of time over the past year dealing with a core muscle injury that we discussed extensively earlier this summer. Regardless, expectations should be tempered for a soon-to-be 19-year-old rookie who isn't conditioned for the rigors of an 82-game schedule at the highest level. Seguin, who's clearly a No. 1 center and bona-fide NHL star, scored just 11 goals in 74 games with the Bruins in his rookie season following the draft - granted the Bruins were stacked that season and eventually won the Stanley Cup.
The second part of the Patrick equation revolves around the roster, which Hextall also alluded to, saying, "We've got numbers. We don't have to have him. We've got other kids who can play and we have veterans, so we're in a good position with him."
Sure, the Flyers may have numbers, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's strength in those numbers. Last season, you could assess the Flyers' roster and see it had a glaring need for a second-line center, and probably still does. Dave Hakstol attempted to utilize Brayden Schenn on that line, but clearly, he was more suited to play on the outside. Following the trade of Schenn and subsequent addition of Jori Lehtera, the Flyers now appear to have at least six guys who can fill the middle of the ice when training camp opens, and that doesn't include Patrick.
Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier and Lehtera are primarily centers, and with Lehtera's $4.7 million cap hit, it would serve as poor roster management to slot him as the team's fourth-line center at that price tag. Especially, if less expensive guys like Mike Vecchione and/or Scott Laughton prove to be contributors.
Sorting out the Flyers' lines would be simplified, although not desirable, if Patrick goes back to the junior level. The challenge for Hakstol and Hextall will come if Patrick proves he belongs, much like Travis Konecny did when he kicked down that door a year ago.