Forward Brock Nelson was on the ice for all four Sound Tigers goals in their 4-2 victory over the Norfolk Admirals on Wednesday. The rookie center scored the game-winner, extending his goal streak to three games, and tacked on an assist, bringing his season point total to nine (five goals and four assists).
He’s one point shy of team-leader Nino Niederreiter’s total, and leads the Sound Tigers with a plus-four rating, but Nelson’s point production almost seems secondary when describing his value through the first nine games of the American Hockey League season.
“He’s such a smart hockey player,” Head Coach Scott Pellerin said. “His size, his skating and his positional play is very good. Being a center and having that much range for a young player is so important.”
The 20-year-old has become Pellerin’s top choice in nearly every situation. He’s on the Sound Tigers top power-play and penalty-kill units, as well as their most relied-upon and productive five-on-five line. Flanked by wingers Colin McDonald and Niederreiter, Nelson was on the ice for every other shift in the waning minutes of Wednesday’s game, as his club clung to a one-goal lead before Niederreiter added an insurance marker.
“He’s playing a lot of quality minutes in all different situations so I’m giving him as much as he can handle,” Pellerin said. “So far he’s handled everything I’ve thrown out.”
Nelson has shown the ability to make flashy, highlight-reel plays, but he draws audible “oohs” and “aahs” from coaches and scouts with his awareness of passing lanes on defense, his shoot-first mentality and his punishing work along the boards. That hockey sense was on full display on Wednesday’s game-winner.
“One of their guys tried to throw a cross-ice pass and I tried to make a read,” Nelson said. “I had a little bit of time and I was able to get the shot off semi-quick. It hit the pipe and went in. It was a big goal.”
It’s telling that Nelson felt like he had time on the play. On the video, it happened in about 0.5 seconds. Nelson knew where Admirals forward Corey Elkins was going with breakout pass before Elkins did, and in one motion, Nelson intercepted the puck and snapped it past Norfolk goalie Frederik Andersen.
That was the longest Nelson held the puck on his stick Wednesday. He knows where he’s going before his first touch and when no one is open, is happy to play the chip-and-grind style that dictates the AHL and NHL game.
The University of North Dakota product was a marquee scorer for the Fighting Sioux last season. His 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists) led the club during a sophomore campaign that led to Nelson getting an eye-opening taste of the AHL, where he went scoreless in four games on an Amateur Tryout.
“Getting bigger and stronger adds confidence – I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed,” Nelson said. “You have to know that you deserve to be out there and not play timid or sit back on your heels.”
In addition to his growing confidence, Nelson credits his linemates for his quick transition to the AHL game.
“Mac (Colin McDonald) is always in the right spot, making the right plays - he’s a veteran guy,” Nelson said. “I take little bits of information from him and build it into my game. Whether it’s Mac telling me what to do on the wall or Nino (Niederreiter) telling me what to do with the puck, you just have to listen to everybody.”
As Nelson adapts to the professional game, his stats will continue to accumulate, but it’s his other attributes that make the 2011 first-round pick such an intriguing NHL prospect.