When the Islanders return to the playoffs, Frans Nielsen‘s name will rightfully be mentioned when votes are placed for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Nielsen is the Islanders’ best forward in the D zone and he is emerging as one of the best in the game.
“I take a lot of pride in keeping the other guys off the scoreboard,” said Nielsen, the 25-year-old center who leads the team with a plus-11 and is sixth on the Islanders in scoring with 9 goals and 19 assists.
“Frans has been a strong defensive player for a while now,” said head coach Scott Gordon. “There isn’t anybody I wouldn’t play him against. It’s a credit to how hard he has worked at it, plus he is someone with a good deal of skill who will continue to improve in the offensive end.”
As a result, Nielsen is every bit a fixture in this rebuild as some of his more hyped and earlier-drafted young teammates. The 2002 third round pick has been impressive in his own zone since joining the Islanders organization in the 2006-07 season. However, it wasn’t until the magnificent hockey writer and stats analyst James Mirtle posted a story at the end of January when many around the league realized how far the Dane had come in such short time.
There for everyone to see was the proof of Nielsen’s checking efforts. Using his calculus to determine the best defensive forwards in five-on-five and shorthanded situations, Mirtle ranked the young Islander third in the NHL – behind Daniel Alfredsson and Troy Brouwer and one place ahead of Patrick Marleau.
I asked Mirtle of the Toronto Globe & Mail for an explanation of his math (since, to be candid, I’d be lying if I told you I understood all this stuff). James was kind enough to write me before the Olympic break:
“The 1.60 (Nielsen’s grade) is like a goals against average for a player, but it’s only for even strength and shorthanded situations,” explained Mirtle. “The Islanders are almost never getting scored on when Nielsen is out there.”
Mirtle was then asked for his perspective specifically on Frans:
“Statistically speaking, Nielsen leads Islanders forwards in a ton of defensive categories. He faces the other team’s top lines most nights and has been on the ice for only fifteen 5-on-5 goals against all season. He’s also got great numbers on the penalty kill and should probably be used more often in that role.
“No one else on the Isles is close to make the top 30 in my ranking, which is unique around the league as players normally benefit from playing with one another. To me that says Nielsen’s been solid defensively with a whole bunch of different linemates.”
Again, keep in mind this exchange with Mirtle was prior to the Islanders’ struggles before and since the Olympic break. Like the rest of the Islanders, Nielsen’s numbers have suffered in every category as the team has lost 11 of its last 14 games. (Using the traditional plus/minus NHL math, Nielsen is minus-3 in those 14 games).
Nevertheless, he is a plus-11 on a team that runs the troubling gamut from understandably struggling teenage first-line center (John Tavares, -19) to veteran checking forward (Richard Park, -18).
Still, for Nielsen to be in such heady company with Alfredsson – and be so far ahead of the rest of his team – says a lot about the well-rounded player he has become.
He credits the Swedish Elite League for his education on defense.
“They play a lot of trap hockey in the Swedish League, but either way I think it’s the best defensive league in the world,” said Nielsen, who first played in the SEL as a 17-year-old. “When I first got there, I didn’t know much about defense. In Denmark, I had the puck a lot. But Malmo put me on the fourth line and told me, ‘Just focus on not letting the other team score.’
“The Swedes completely taught me how to be a responsible two-way forward. That’s where I also learned how to win faceoffs. By the last season in Sweden, I was top-five in the league. When I first got there, I couldn’t beat anybody on a draw.
“Now Scott (Gordon) has started to use me to match up against the other team’s top line. It’s a compliment and a challenge and a lot of fun. For me, shutting down the top scorers in the league is just as nice as scoring a goal.”
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