Since entering the NHL during the 2017-18 season the Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s best teams every year.
They have already played in three Conference Finals, have the fourth most regular season wins in the league, the second most playoff wins, and have consistently been one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders. They are loaded with high level talent all across their roster with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, and Robin Lehner all leading the roster (and until this season Marc-Andre Fleury was in that mix as well).
They have just had one very obvious Achilles Heel that has held them back a little and kept them from actually winning it all. That would be the absence of impact talent down the middle at center.
That is what makes Nolan Patrick, one of their top offseason additions, such a potentially important part of this year’s team.
The need for an impact center
Maybe it’s confirmation bias at play, or maybe it is something really important, but Stanley Cup winning teams always have at least one, and usually two, impact centers leading their roster. Every year. Every team. Without exception. Vegas’ lack of that might help explain why, at least in part, their offense has at times abandoned them in the playoffs.
Just look at the top-two centers on the past 10 Stanley Cup winners.
- 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point
- 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde (Stamkos was injured in playoffs)
- 2018-19 St. Louis Blues: Ryan O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn
- 2017-18 Washington Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov
- 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
- 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
- 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews and Brad Richards
- 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings: Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards/Jeff Carter
- 2012-13: Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland
- 2011-12: Los Angeles Kings: Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards
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Every single one of those teams had at least one major impact player at center, and almost all of them had two (only exceptions being maybe the 2019 Blues and 2013 Blackhawks).
Vegas’ top two centers this past season were William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson. A year ago it was Karlsson and Paul Stastny. All excellent players, but each probably playing one line above where they should have been for a Stanley Cup contender.
If Karlsson and Stephenson are your second-and third-line centers you are probably going to be in a great spot as a contender. But neither one of them is the kind of player that an opposing coach is going to lose sleep game planning over in a best-of-seven series, and none of them are a player that is going to take over a game or a series and drastically change the outcome of it. They are complementary pieces. They are not the centerpiece.
So here is where Patrick enters the picture.
Even though he has not yet become that sort of player, there is still the faint hope that maybe he could still become something close to that.
The start of his career at least made him look like he had the potential to be that for the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a No. 2 overall pick that showed flashes of star power over his first two years in the league, including a playoff appearance in his rookie season where he was one of the most noticeable Flyers on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Then the injuries happened.
Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 season, throwing a wrench into his development and robbing him of what could have been a crucial year in his progression. When he finally returned during the 2020-21 season he had gone more than 560 games between NHL games and never really played at the level he had displayed in his first two years. He recorded just nine points in 52 games, averaged less than one shot on goal per game, while the Flyers were badly outscored with him on the ice. That resulted in the offseason trade that saw him go to Vegas, Cody Glass and Philippe Myers go to Nashville, and Ryan Ellis go to Philadelphia.
There is obviously a rust factor at play there. He was still establishing himself as an NHL player when he lost more than a full year of his development and had to try and readjust to the NHL game with huge expectations following him around. He not only saw his production regress, he simply did not look like the same player. The playmaking, chance-creating, aggressive and skilled center that started to blossom during his first two years in the league was simply non-existent.
He still has that natural ability (the skating, the size, the playmaking) that made him a No. 2 overall pick in the draft, and he is getting a fresh start (something he almost certainly needs) on a Stanley Cup contender where he will be surrounded by impact talent on the wings.
Patrick is far from a sure thing at this point and is definitely now in the “suspect” vs. “prospect” category of players. If he is going to be the player everybody thought he could be when he entered the NHL it is going to have to start happening right now. But this could be the sort of change he needs to reach his potential. If he can, or at least something close to it, it might help Vegas get the one thing it is definitely still lacking when it comes to reaching the Stanley Cup.