After tackling the soon-to-be-ex-Isles before the draft and free agency, this week we resumed our 2010-11 report cards first with John Tavares. So might as well tackle the Islanders' other returning full-time center next.
Those who read this site regularly know of my unabashed, unrestrained, unforbidden love for Frans Nielsen. (Note: It's also quite warranted.) But while Nielsen does all things for all needs (Check? Yeah. Score? Check. Keep the opponent's best lines at bay? Uh huh.), in 2010-11 he was asked to do slightly less -- or more, depending on your view of what's hard in hockey. Playing the opposition's best lines and coming out a plus player is hard -- but so is playing the opposition's best lines slightly less and putting up more points than you've put up before.
As a bonus, the Lady Byng-worthy Nielsen apparently became some kind of thug this past season. At least twice he made Danny/iel Briere cry.
Granted, Nielsen is not some offensive dynamo -- but his offensive skills are underrated by most, because most overlook just how few offensive situations he's put into. Rare is the NHL player who is called on to: 1) Check the other guys' #1 line, yet 2) still moves the puck to the other team's end and 3) ends up creating plenty of goals, too.
An Aside about Offense
People say Nielsen is offensively "limited," and that might be true in that he's not going to deke around a guy and score (unless that guy is the goalie, falling victim to the Backhand of Judgment) and he's not going to blast a goal from the point (when miscast as powerplay pointman, a position from which he is at least a productive distributor).
But his 7 shorthanded goals (1st in the NHL) and 28 even strength points (6th on the team) aren't exactly limited displays of offense for a guy who doesn't get the O-zone starts the team's top three scorers get and is spending a good deal of the game penalty killing and keeping the other team's Brieres from breaking their toys.
That said obviously his shot from open play is not his strength, and his faceoff rate this year -- even at 5-on-5 -- took a noteworthy drop.
Numbers 'n Theories 'n Stuff
Did I mention he was +13 on a team of mostly minuses, despite the aforementioned tough roles?
|2009-10 - Frans Nielsen||76||12||26||38||+4||6||0||1||50%||17:12||2:56||1:58||8.8|
|2010-11 - Frans Nielsen||71||13||31||44||+13||38||0||7||46.2%||17:45||2:30||2:59||8.3|
That said, while NIelsen's PK work (perhaps the toughest role of all) increased this season, his 5-on-5 quality of competition figures were not as heavy as in 2009-10: Where in 2009-10 he by any measure was with Kyle Okposo and Richard Park in drawing the toughest 5-on-5 competition on the Islanders, in 2010-11 the "top" line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau were used often enough to draw their own share of tough opponents.
Mind you, Nielsen is still the defensive center of first choice. But the Islanders' Tavares line produced enough -- and Nielsen scared opponents enough -- that opponents overall sent their best out against Tavares.
Obviously individual situations vary and this is all based on aggregate numbers (thanks to the data compiled by the venerable Gabe Desjardins at Behind the Net and Arctic Ice Hockey), but a reasonable way to describe this is: The Islanders send Nielsen out against the opponent's best, but the opponent might want to avoid that and send their best out against Tavares both to counter Tavares and take advantage of any defensive liabilities his line might have.
The point is, Nielsen is a fantastic player with offensive and defensive strengths. And the more Tavares improves in both those areas, the more opponents have to pick their poison between him and Nielsen. If teams pull their best away from Nielsen (whether out of fear of being shut down by Nielsen, or in fear/hope to diminish Tavares' offensive results), we'll likely see more production from Nielsen -- no doubt with the aid of new running mate Michael Grabner, who's so fast his name appeared before I even typed "If" at the beginning of this sentence.
How Much Is This Gonna Cost Me?
Frans Nielsen can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If you buy any of what I just typed -- both how good he is and how his offense might be poised to take another step upward this year -- then the longer he waits to re-sign the higher his market price likely becomes.
It's a scary proposition: Nielsen isn't as young (27 in April) as Grabner or Okposo, his game is dependent on speed, and his frame is slight enough that you fear how he'll get by when he loses a step or suffers another injury. So a five-year deal takes him through his prime and probably costs his biggest earning years, but also carries some risk. (Meanwhile, the Islanders have several heady centers in the system who could conceivably blossom out of nowhere the way Nielsen did.)
One thing you can bank on though: Whatever their ceilings or sudden rises, none of those centers will prove themselves to be anywhere near Frans-like during 2011-12. So playing hardball or trading him as a rental isn't in the cards. Giving Nielsen an extension in the next 10 months is the likely necessity.
Videos: Shorty, Thuggery, Why-Not-ery?
In which it is unwise to pull Nielsen down on a breakaway:
In which Nielsen teaches old pal Dwayne Roloson that there are more forms of judgment in his toolbox:
In which Briere fears he will be assaulted, and thus assaults first (with double-up by fellow Danny tool, Carcillo):
Word to yo' moms
This here is the Frans
He come to shut you down
Like Briere dive bombs
If you ain't heard da man from Denmark
Then your line ain't fit to be marked
So go play with the grinders
Where your bite can match your wee bark
You know how this goes by now: Ignore all my hyperbole, consider the evidence and your own preseason expectations, and grade Nielsen's 2010-11 accordingly. Honestly, for me that means a 6 or 7, because my opinion and expectations of the man were already high. If you were expecting a huge offensive breakout, you probably give him a 5 or less. And if you don't care about these rules, you're always free to give him a write-in of 11 like last year.