For those unaware, Frans Neilsen was a darling of the stazis for a long time, in fact even before he began to score 40+ points and get noticed as a Selke candidate. The great Dane fell off this shortened season for whatever reason, but up until recently he was the archetype of a capable, two-way centerman who quietly takes on all the tough match-ups and gets the job done.
Which is why he has become my favorite comparable for the Flames own Mikael Backlund. Like Backs, Nielsen is relatively skilled, but isn’t overly big (6’1", 180 pounds), isn’t an accurate shooter (career SH% of just 9.2%), and boasts above average possession stats in tough circumstances.
Nielsen is now a staple on a very good Islanders team where he averaged the third most even strength ice time behind first liners John Tavares and Matt Moulson this past season, while also featuring prominently on the PP and PK. Nielsen’s career high in points is just 47, but he remains one of the most important players for New York thanks to his high utility and ability to drive play in less than ideal situations.
The comparison between the two players is an intuitive one given the way Backlund is developing, but is it legitimate? I went back through Nielsen’s first four seasons and then comared them to Backlund’s career so far to see if there was a fit:
|Season||Age||Rel Corsi||rank||Rel QofC||rank||ZS%||rank||shot rate|
|Season||Age||Rel Corsi||rank||Rel QoC||rank||ZS%||rank||shot rate|
|2009-2010||21||11.0||1st||-0.538||2nd last||58||2nd last||2.04/game|
|2010-2011||22||15.2||2nd||-0.168||3rd last||54.3||3rd last||1.97/game|
The tables show each player’s relative corsi rate (his possession rate/60 minutes of ice corrected for team strength), as well as relative quality of competition and zone start ratio (offensive faceoffs/defense faceoffs at even strength).
Short version: this table shows how well each player drove possession as well as the circumstances each guy played in.
Also included is each guys rank amongst regular forward for each season in each category. Rank for QoC and ZS are from toughest (1st) to easiest (last).
Shot rate is a look at how many shots per game each player was directing on net.
As you can see, the numbers seem to support the comparison. Nielsen only appeared in 16 games as a 24 year old, but after that he quickly became one of the Islanders most a capable tough minutes options. His sophomore season was somewhat ambiguous with Nielsen finishing as one of the best possession players on the club, but he also started more often in the offensive zone and against lesser competition.
His third year in the NHL is when he really established himself. His zone start ratio plunged to just 44.6% and he started seeing top-six competition. That treatment followed through to the year, but he nevertheless was one of the top-3 forwards at driving the play north.
For Backlund’s part, he’s actually ahead of the Nielsen curve since he is already an established possession driver at 24. Like Nielsen, Backlund spent his first two seasons in the league mostly being sheltered but transitioned to a much tougher role in year three. Backlund’s zone start and quality of competition of have both increased in difficulty the last two years relative to the first wo years, but he has remained the best corsi forwards on the Flames.
Obscuring Backlund’s value in this realm has been rotten shooting percentages (particularly 2011-12) and swath of injuries that had him in-and-out of the line-up. Some might point out that Nielsen has scored 30+ points in the league four times and 40+ twice, but keep in mind he has consistently averaged more than 2 minutes of PP time per game since 2008-09. Backlund, in contrast, has never crested 2 minutes per night, with his highest average being 1:23 from this past year.
What’s also interesting is that Backlund is a higher volume shooter than Nielsen, even though he has played less with the man advantage. This suggests if he could stay healthy and get his SH% up to even a moderately decent rate, Backlund could be the better goal scorer of the two.
The math suggests Nielsen is a decent comparable for Backlund, and in fact it seems the Flames young pivot is tracking ahead of the Islanders centerman given his age and how consistently he has finished atop of the Flames pile in terms of possession metrics.
Like Nielsen, Backlund probably doesn’t have a huge offensive ceiling, but if he can start scoring 40+ points while keeping the puck in the offensive zone in all situations, he’ll be a key contributor to the Flames as they attempt to dig themselves out of the Western Conference basement.