Heading into training camp last September, forward Brock Nelson was simply trying to earn a spot with the New York Islanders. Twelve months later, he'll have an opportunity to play a prominent role.
As a 22-year-old, Nelson played 72 games for the Islanders last season and got better as it progressed. After fighting to crack the lineup early in the season, the rookie ended up with 14 goals and 12 assists, and showed the ability to be a responsible player in both ends of the ice.
"It was maybe tough here and there, but I think I had a good support system around me," Nelson said. "Everyone just kept telling me to work hard and just keep doing the right things and you'll get your time and you'll get your opportunity. You've just got to be ready for when that moment came and I think I was able to do that, and I think the coaching staff did a great job of keeping me prepared for when that time came."
The Islanders have a vacancy on the top line alongside center John Tavares and right wing Kyle Okposo after Thomas Vanek declined to sign a long-term contract with New York. Islanders coach Jack Capuano won't decide who will fill that void until the end of training camp, but Nelson's size (6-foot-3, 196 pounds) and soft hands could make him a fit.
"It's a long ways away yet, but time goes fast and you just gotta work hard," said Nelson, whom the Islanders traded up to grab at No. 30 at the 2010 NHL Draft. "If I'm given that opportunity, [then I need] to be ready and take advantage of it. [I have to] be as ready and prepared and be ready to play at a high level because they're great players and they make a lot of plays offensively. If I end up there, it definitely wouldn't be a bad thing. But I've got to be ready and there's a lot of guys that could fill in that spot."
Nelson thrived as a center at the University of North Dakota and for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League, a big reason why Capuano is hesitant to shift him to left wing. But it's easy to see why he thinks Nelson, Tavares and Okposo could form a very productive top line.
"It's always tough for me to take a 6-foot-3 guy like Brock Nelson out of the middle," Capuano said. "He really established himself as one of the top young centermen in the League for me. He's so smart, he's got great intelligence of the game. But if we have to do that and try him on the wing on Johnny's line to see how that goes, we're open to do that as well.
"The good thing is that we have options and we've got some healthy competition, which is great."
As for Nelson, he said he doesn't have a preference between center and wing. He simply wants to be in the lineup, continue to improve in his own end of the ice and help the Islanders get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division last season.
"That's been a popular question, but I feel pretty confident and comfortable at both positions," Nelson said. "I think the only thing you think a little differently is maybe [at] center you're a little more responsible defensively, but I think that's something that I've tried to incorporate into my game no matter where I'm at."
Regardless of where he ends up this season, it's a safe bet Nelson has landed himself a full-time role in the NHL. He admitted he's a bit more relaxed at this time compared to a year ago, but knows he must continue to work in order to become the player he and the Islanders envision him becoming. He realizes he can't take anything for granted.
"Maybe a little bit, but I think the focus is the same," Nelson said. "I'm trying to get better and bigger, faster, stronger. You try to take advantage of the opportunities you're given. You never know what could happen at the beginning of the year."
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