With all the changes the Islanders roster has seen since the beginning of training camp, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the veterans who have been quietly getting the job done for years. Much of the focus this season has surrounded leading-scorer John Tavares, special teams play and the nine players who are in their first year with the organization, but seventh-year Islander Frans Nielsen has quietly put up impressive offensive numbers.
The Herning, Denmark, native has posted nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 12 games, but Nielsen’s impact to the team extends well beyond the score sheet. Josh Bailey, Nielsen’s teammate for the past five seasons, has seen firsthand the impact that Nielsen has on all facets of the game.
“He’s an all-situations player,” Bailey said. “You can put him anywhere and it’s going to benefit the players around him, because he makes them better. I think I’m a prime example of that. Playing with him has certainly elevated my game in the past and we hope to continue that. He’s a jack of all trades.”
Nielsen already has three two-assist games this season centering the second line and logging important minutes on the power play and penalty kill. His play has been so consistent for so long that it can be easy to overlook.
“Frans is one of those guys for me that goes under the radar,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s so defensive-oriented and he plays against the other teams’ top lines. He’s not a very big guy, but he’s got great hockey sense, a good stick and he’s always in the right position.”
Nielsen is his own biggest critic. Pointing out the recent struggles the team has gone through, he can list a number of areas in his game that need work.
“I actually don’t feel like I’ve been playing as well as I should, especially 5-on-5,” Nielsen said. “We’ve had some success at times, but our line hasn’t dominated games like we’ve wanted to. We’ve spent too much time in our own end instead of the attack zone.”
Nielsen is one of Capuano’s most trusted forwards on the penalty kill, which has allowed just four goals all season and ranks fourth in the NHL at 89.5%. Nielsen is counted on to win draws and put pressure on the opponent, but he credits the success on the PK to having four players on the same page communicating to execute the kill.
“It’s about being in shooting lanes and being in the right position out there, both with your body and your stick,” Nielsen said. “I think everybody’s been doing a great job. We’ve been getting the puck out of the zone when we’ve had the chance. I like the feeling we have on the PK.”
In addition to his role on the penalty kill, Nielsen is also heavily relied upon in power play situations. Through the first few weeks, he played the point on the top unit, distributing the puck to the forwards down low. With the addition of Lubomir Visnovsky to the lineup, Nielsen has shifted to the second power play unit, playing the forward role alongside Keith Aucoin and Josh Bailey. So far, being around a different cast and in a different role hasn’t fazed Nielsen, who scored on the man advantage in the early stages of Monday’s game vs. Carolina.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” Bailey said. “He plays the point on one unit and he comes in on the next unit and plays up front and scores a goal. We try to key on him with getting the puck on the breakout as well. He’s so good at getting the puck into the zone and getting the attack started.”
Always considered a more cerebral player, Nielsen downplays the transition.
“I don’t think it’s too big of a change,” Nielsen said. “Even when I was on the blue line, I still had a pretty free role on the power play. I was all over the ice. Sometimes (Brad) Boyes or John (Tavares) would come up, and I’d go down to the slot. We’d move around a lot and I think I’ll do the same now. If a defenseman goes down in the corner, I can drop back to the point. I’ll still be all over the place and play different positions out there.”
Nielsen’s defense-first playing style as well as scoring ability will be counted on for the Islanders to reclaim their early-season success. When the Islanders get back to the winning ways, it’ll probably have a lot to do with the veteran flying under the radar.