Keep an Eye on…Frans Nielsen?

St. Louis Blues v New York Islanders


While the Islanders have been a bad team for awhile, they do have a couple of name players worth noting: Former #1 pick John Tavares; former first rounder Kyle Okposo; the impressive Mark Streit; the emerget Matt Moulson.

But one guy you almost never hear about is checking center Frans Nielsen. I know I’d never really given him a second thought until James Mirtle requested I look at his underlying numbers a couple of weeks ago (because his plus/minus was so strangely good). I did and was floored.

Firstly, there’s a couple of reasons you’ve probably never heard of the guy. He was drafted in the third round back in 2002. He’s an import from the SEL where he never really put up big numbers. In two and half NHL seasons, his career highs are 10 goals and 24 asissts. There’s nothing eye-catching there.

Until you dig under the surface. Nielsen is one of only a few of the Islanders regular skaters in the black in terms of corsi this year (+1.56/60). In fact, only Trent Hunter is ahead of him in that regard. The stat isn’t terribly impessive, however, until you realize that Nielsen is the Islanders shut-down center and their primary option against other teams top guns. He sees the toughest level of opposition on the team and starts in the offensive zone just 44% of the time (second worst zone start amongst centers on the club). On top of all that, he scores at a rate of 1.74 ESP/60, which is also fairly healthy. To put that in context, the only Flames currently more efficicent than Nielsen are Hagman, Stajan, Iginla and Bourque.  

To have a positive corsi stat in those sorts of circumstances on that team is simply outstanding. In fact, it’s Selke-quality work. I had trouble believing the numbers when I saw them, so I contacted Lighthouse Hockey’s Dominik to see if the reality matched up with the stats. This is what he had to say about Nielsen:

The numbers do not lie, certainly not in this case.

Nielsen‘s "hockey smarts" are a joy to watch. He lacks the natural gift of size, but his body positioning and anticipation make him an excellent defensive center. I’ve been surprised to see him handle bigger opposing centers, but I guess he has a bit of Datsyuk in him, in terms of figuring out how to mitigate size. He actually has a nice bit of offensive skill — good passer, good stickhandler, decent shot, (and I hate to say, a deadly shootout move), but I think his offensive numbers suffer from lesser linemates (Tavares and Josh Bailey get the better goalscoring wingers, while Nielsen draws the tougher assignments and weaker wingers) as well as his nature to prioritize defense first. He also very rarely takes a penalty.

I’ve been high on him for a few seasons — I keep telling Isles fans he is a hidden gem — so it’s been cool to see him slowly get a little more attention this season. The coach has 100% faith in him, which helps, and Snow locked him up two years ago to a long-term, very cheap deal. He’s an overlooked example of what Snow has done right.

Indeed. Nielsen won’t get the accolades and contracts that (future) scorers like Tavares and Okposo will command, but he’ll likely be the guy doing the dirty spade work which helps them achieve those glittering counting numbers. It’ll be interesting to see his work this evening.