Last week, we kicked off this series by discussing the merits of extending Anders Lee (spoiler alert: the Islanders should move forward). This week, it’s time to dive into what may be a less obvious situation: Brock Nelson.
Nelson, the 30th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has been with the Islanders full-time since the 2013-14 season (he dressed for Game 6 in the 2013 playoff series against Pittsburgh for his NHL debut). After a modest rookie season, Nelson looked like he was breaking out during the 2014-15 season as part of the “kid” line with Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. But, some inconsistent play over the next few seasons have — somewhat — soured Nelson to the fanbase.
Fast forward to the current season and things have taken a positive turn for Nelson. As Arthur Staple notes in his latest in The Athletic, Nelson was - perhaps forcefully - pushed into a larger role with the departure of John Tavares. He’s responded with a career high in points (50, heading into Tuesday’s game) and is just two off a career high in goals (24). Oh, and he’s missed a grand total of two games since the start of the 2014-15 season.
Now 27, Nelson will head to free agency after signing a one-year deal with the Islanders for $4.25 million days before a scheduled arbitration hearing. So the question is, should the Islanders let him walk or keep him? Let’s dive in.
The Case For Brock Nelson
Brock Nelson is going to have a lot of leverage over the Islanders, should Lou Lamoriello make the decision to try and retain his services going forward. The reason for that, of course, is due to the organizational depth chart. Right now, the Islanders have only two centers (Mathew Barzal and Casey Cizikas) signed for next season. Futhermore, the Isles’ top center prospect (Ruslan Iskhakov) is a skilled, but undersized freshman at the University of Connecticut.
Basically, the Islanders have very little to speak of when it comes to center throughout the entire organization. And furthermore, their prospect pool there is equally light. That, almost alone, enhances the importance of Nelson - even with his weaknesses - to the Islanders organization.
Production matters, however, and Nelson fares well here too. As mentioned above, he’s already hit a career high in points. And relative to the league, he fits within what a second-line center should be producing. Nelson currently ranks 45th among centers in 5v5 points (34), 21st in 5v5 goals (18), 54th in 5v5 shots (116), 38th in overall goals (24), 50th in overall points (50), and 53rd in overall shots (162). Obviously, the lack of power play production reduces his overall ranks, but those are all pretty indicative of a player who fits in nicely on any team’s second line.
Now that we have established how Nelson fits in from a production and organizational needs perspectives, let’s talk about how he fits the Islanders style of play.
Turns out, very nicely!
Islanders’ Head Coach Barry Trotz came into this season preaching the idea of taking quality shots over all the shots. Some players have struggled with that notion, but Brock Nelson is not one of them. As we can see in the chart above, Nelson’s relative high danger rates are better than what is expected of his overall relative shot attempt rates. In other words, when Nelson is on the ice, the Islanders are getting more quality shot attempts than they are getting general shot attempts.
We can see this within Nelson’s high danger rates per hour. As of Tuesday’s game at Columbus, Nelson ranked fourth among forwards on the team in on-ice high danger chances for per hour (13.13), just below Cal Clutterbuck, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee. He’s played most of the year with Eberle and Lee, and we can see how that’s translated over time on the above chart. As Staple noted in his article in The Athletic, Trotz has rewarded Nelson with more ice time than he’s seen in his career, perhaps showing a level of trust that seemed to disintegrate under both Jack Capuano and Doug Weight.
The Case Against Brock Nelson
While Nelson has shown his worth on the production side of things (it’s worth noting his 0.59 average game score ranks third among Isles’ skaters this season), he has struggled in other facets of the game.
The performance of overall possession (or Corsi) for Nelson has been inconsistent. He’s been a negative team-relative player in shot attempts and shots on net every year since 2014-15. From 2014-2018, Nelson was also below team average in scoring chance share and high danger chance share. Those things have turned around this year under Barry Trotz, but the team would have to be awfully sold on this year’s performance being the new “norm” going forward.
Likewise, Nelson has similar concerns that are somewhat out of his control. Signing the Minnesota native to a, say, 6 year deal would keep him in an Islander uniform until after his age 33 season. We know aging curves are not typically the kindest for over-30 year old players, and the team would have to be equally sold that his production (perhaps a byproduct of his scoring chance and high danger rates) would keep up to his future elevated salary.
Nelson is by no means a “fleet of foot” skater either. He’s another Islander that relies on efficient routes, body positioning (despite not being a banger), and hockey sense to be effective. Those are all qualities that got him to the point he’s at now, but the team must consider if those will persist into the player’s early-30s.
Decisions such as this one can be difficult, as signing a player like Nelson may carry higher risk than someone who is more decorated. But the Islanders, frankly, need Nelson. As mentioned, the Isles only have two centers signed into next season, currently leaving the two middle line roles open. Letting Nelson walk would trigger two searches with almost no help to speak of within the team’s organizational depth chart.
The switching costs that would be required there, including “cultural fit”, skill/production, salary/contracts, assets via trade, durability may outweigh the costs of simply keeping a player who has actually given pretty stable production since the 2014-15 season.
Knowing that Lou Lamoriello will likely need to fill at least one center spot over the summer, it seems counterintuitive to push that to a second even with some of the risks involved. Without going deep into what the next contract could look like, the verdict here is similar to that of Anders Lee.
The pros outweigh the cons here: the Islanders should look to re-sign Brock Nelson for the 2019-20 season (and beyond).
All data from this piece is from Natural Stat Trick.