The story of the Islanders impressive 8-2-2 season-ending run was the youth in the lineup. First-year players made up half of the Isles’ active roster down the stretch, with at least one greenhorn on each forward line and in each defensive pairing. They played hard, simple hockey, tirelessly outworking their opponents and seemingly unaware that their inexperience was supposed to put them at a disadvantage.
Each of the rookies added a different element to the successful experiment. Ryan Strome showcased his playmaking ability, reinforcing why he was the fifth-overall pick two years ago. Anders Lee flirted with a point-per-game clip and lit the lamp nine times on the Islanders top line. Calvin de Haan was a steady presence on the back end, playing over 20 minutes in every game from March 1 until an injury ended his season on April 5. Tough guys Brett Gallant and Justin Johnson provided the sandpaper and sent the message that the Islanders were young, but could not be pushed around, while Mike Halmo’s fourth-line grit agitated opponents nightly.
While others scored, fought and grinded the crowd to their feet, one rookie went quietly about his business, turning heads in the locker room by using his own. At the Islanders clean-out day, teammates unanimously raved about Brock Nelson.
John Tavares said the way Nelson attacks the net is “spectacular.”
Kyle Okposo called him one of the Islanders most consistent players and said he reminds him of Patrice Bergeron.
Cal Clutterbuck said that this year was just the tip of the iceberg.
That’s hefty praise from the Islanders leaders.
“It’s nice to hear the older guys give you pointers here and there and compliments,” Nelson said. “It’s all just building blocks now and you try learn from them. They’ve established themselves and they are great players in this league. It’s a goal of a lot of the young guys to emulate those guys and get to that level and take the most out of what they teach us.”
The praise is warranted and speaks to Nelson’s contributions this season. The soft-spoken rookie finished fifth on the Islanders with 14 goals and sixth on the team with 26 points. Moreso than his point production, the veterans praised Nelson’s high hockey IQ, poise and decision-making on the ice. Nelson’s ability to adapt to changing roles – from top-line center to third-line winger – and linemates allowed Head Coach Jack Capuano the freedom to rotate his roster and helped Nelson earn a spot on the US roster for the upcoming World Championships.
“As a player I think I developed this season. Now I have to turn a page and look ahead to the offseason and what I need to do to get better… I have a lot of work to do to fill out, but I hope I can be one of those bigger guys.” - Brock Nelson
“He’s a pretty easy guy to play with,” Clutterbuck said. “Hopefully we get a chance to continue playing together. Over the next couple of years I think he has a lot to offer.”
Nelson showed he can play center and wing, but found a home down the middle, solidifying the Islanders depth at center. Given his ability to read, analyze and react on the fly, Nelson prefers the pivot role, where he can have more defensive responsibility and offensive influence on the game.
“Center brings a different aspect of the game because sometimes you’re a little more in control of the play,” Nelson said. “To have that control over the game definitely helps you get into the game.”
That yearning for an increased role summarizes Nelson’s on-ice progression this season, from a rookie playing not to make a mistake on the fourth-line wing, to an assertive, confident NHL regular as a second-line center. A quick scan of his time on ice shows his minutes vastly increasing in the second half of the season. He played fewer than 10 minutes once since the calendar flipped to 2014.
“On the ice when he first got here, he was a guy who wanted to play it safe,” Capuano said.”We knew that all through the NCAA, his college hockey career and in Bridgeport with the numbers that he had - when he got comfortable, the numbers would come.”
It takes rookies time to adjust to the speed and size of the NHL, but at 6’3, Nelson had an advantage over other first-year Islanders. Nelson was the Islanders tallest forward and while it may not be obvious on his tall frame, he added 30 pounds from last summer’s rookie camp. The Warroad, MN, native used his size to his advantage, finishing seventh on the team with 74 hits, while only taking 12 penalty minutes.
“As a player I think I developed this season,” Nelson said. “Now I have to turn a page and look ahead to the offseason and what I need to do to get better… I have a lot of work to do to fill out, but I hope I can be one of those bigger guys.”
With all his natural physical tools and a keen sense for the game, Nelson cracked the Islanders before his 22nd birthday and became a well-regarded regular months before his 23rd.
And as he continues to quietly go about his business on the ice, he should also start making a lot of noise around the NHL.