For the next 20 days, our esteemed staff is previewing the 20 biggest questions facing the New York Islanders this season. I also have no idea what I’m talking about, so please adjust your expectations accordingly.
Say it aloud with me: “Brock Nelson, Second Line Center.”
Nope. Still doesn’t sound right.
To glance at Nelson’s career scoring numbers on Hockey Reference.com, you might think he’s a model of near consistency. Goal totals of 20, 26, 20 and 19 in the last four years, with point totals of 42, 45, 45 and 35 in that same time span.
Yet that obscures the other consistencies in Nelson’s game; the consistent 45% CF marks and the -3.7 and -2.5 relative CF% the last two seasons, the long stretches without scoring - including and astonishing 17 game drought last season - and a general indifference to playing without the puck that’s dogged him him entire career.
The thing is, as of this writing, Nelson is probably the most likely candidate to anchor the Islanders’ second line behind now-first line center Mathew Barzal. It’ll be up to Barry Trotz and the new coaching staff to determine if Nelson can handle those duties.
Although he was talking about his new team’s overall defensive play, it’s almost as if Trotz was addressing Nelson directly in this part of a recent Q&A with The Athletic’s Arthur Staple:
One of the easiest things to correct, if there’s a commitment and a buy-in, is keeping the puck out of your net. We’ll need a bigger buy-in, we’ll put some structure, we’ll make sure the details are there and we’ll make players accountable. If they’re not, we’ll get someone who can be accountable. And we’ve got to build our players. We’ve got some unfinished products who can certainly be better. Get them to play to their capabilities, that’s all we ask. We want them to be consistent and play to their capabilities, we never ask guys to do more than they’re capable of.
Is Nelson capable of being a competent, consistent second line center on a competitive NHL team? Sure. He’s big, skates pretty well and has always shown a knack for scoring throughout his career dating back to his high school days in WARROAD, MINNESOTA, DOCANDEDDIE, THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL AS T.J. OSHIE OF THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS, WHO ALSO PLAYED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA ALONGSIDE JONNY TOEWS OF THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS BUT A FEW YEARS BEFORE NELSON DID. ISN’T THAT A FUNNY STORY?
Nelson’s got all the tools. Trotz and company are going to have to teach him how to use them or they’ll have to go out and get someone who already knows. As a UFA next season, Nelson could make for an easy trade chip, although I wouldn’t expect a bountiful return.
If not Nelson, then who? Technically, the Islanders do have a few other candidates for the second line center role, although each would require some amount of lineup juggling and/or wishful thinking to make a fit.
Anthony Beauvillier was drafted as a center and has played there a little in the NHL, but he’s mainly been utilized at left wing. It’s likely he plays on the top line next to Barzal, who he had great success alongside last season, scoring career highs in goals and points. From the first day of prospect camp last Thursday, it sounds like no decision has been made yet on Beauvillier’s position (even if one has been made on his uniform number).
Beauvillier said there hasn’t been dialogue yet about if he will play LW or C. “I’m comfortable anywhere, as long as I play forward.” #Isles— Brian Compton (@BComptonNHL) September 6, 2018
Casey Cizikas has been the Islanders’ fourth line center since about 2012, and before last season, there was reason to believe he could be capable of more. But last year was an injury-riddled disaster for him, and he clearly wasn’t the same tenacious player he had been in the past. Even if Cizikas returns to form, second line center would mostly likely be asking too much from him (still, a few more O-Zone starts probably wouldn’t hurt the poor guy).
Veteran center Valtteri Filppula was signed to a cheap one-year contract, but his last couple of seasons - split between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia - seem to show him in the same class as Nelson; intermittent scoring pop diluted by bad underlying numbers. In fact, his -5.7 and -7.4 CF% Rel in the last two seasons are appreciably worse than Nelson’s. At least his hair was perfect.
How about Bridgeport centers like Tanner Fritz, Travis St. Denis or Scott Eansor? None of them seem like Penske material. With Filppula and Leo “Four Years” Komarov signed just this summer, and a bunch of other forwards on big contracts, a younger player is going to have to really knock the bosses’ socks off to get a spot on the big club, which is kind of a problem.
The wild card in all this is 28-year-old Czech center Jan Kovar, who signed a one-year $2 million deal with the Islanders to come over from the KHL. Kovar played on one of the best lines in that league for a few years, but his production slowed once one of his wingers left the team.
Predictions for Kovar’s first year in the NHL range from “very good second line center” to “well, at least they can waive him if he doesn’t work out.” At this juncture, it’s impossible to know how or even if he’ll fit into the Islanders’ lineup.
If Kovar can be a productive top nine forward, then the gamble was well worth it. If he actually does end up being a very good second line center, then whichever scout pushed for his signing deserves a raise (provided Kovar re-ups for a few more years).
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, the Islanders’ second line center is Brock Nelson. If that changes tomorrow, someone will let you know.