UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- One week into the season, nobody should be surprised to see the New York Islanders' top center, John Tavares, among the NHL scoring leaders.
But their No. 2 center, Brock Nelson, is right there with him.
Nelson, a first-round pick (No. 30) in the 2010 NHL Draft, scored his third goal Tuesday in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It was Nelson's seventh point, tying him with Tavares and three others for the most in the League.
Center - NYI
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 7
SOG: 5 | +/-: 3
"A couple of buddies of mine have sent me a couple of messages, but I don't really pay attention, I just try to go out there and play," Nelson said after practice at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday. "Right now I'm just having fun, and so far we're off to a good start as a team and success comes along with that. You just continue to build on that and hopefully the team keeps rolling and keeps playing solid hockey."
The Islanders are 3-0-0 for the first time since they opened the 2001-02 season with four victories. They host the undefeated San Jose Sharks (3-0-0) on Thursday.
Nelson has played a big role in New York's early success, and his individual achievements can be attributed to his willingness to drive to the net and take abuse from opposing defensemen while trying to either jam a rebound over the goal line or redirect a shot from the point. His first two goals of the season, against the Carolina Hurricanes last Friday, were scored from point-blank range, the second a blast from the point by Johnny Boychuk that went off Nelson's right leg past Cam Ward. The following night at the Coliseum, Nelson redirected a shot from Boychuk for a power-play goal. On Tuesday, he drove to the net, took a feed from linemate Ryan Strome and fired it past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
"I think that's been a sign," Nelson said of his willingness to park himself in front of the net. "A couple [goals] off the leg, a couple just screening in front. Fortunate bounces, and you take them any way you can get 'em. You know, they all count for one, so if you can contribute in that way it definitely boosts your confidence."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said, "You go to those areas and good things happen. A lot of guys like to go there, some guys it's not in their DNA. But to play in this League now, if you want to be successful, you're gonna have to get to those areas."
After a tough start last season (his first in the NHL), Nelson finished strong and had 14 goals and 12 assists in 72 games. When Thomas Vanek opted to sign with the Minnesota Wild on July 1, the consensus seemed to be that Nelson would be the left wing on the top line with Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
But Capuano made no secret about his desire to keep Nelson in the middle, and that's where he finds himself with Mikhail Grabovski on the left and Strome on the right. Each is a natural center, yet they haven't needed much time to develop chemistry.
"I'm fine playing either and I've played more center for sure," Nelson said. "I'm comfortable at both, and right now the main focus is center and defensively and chipping in offensively. So far, our line's been doing well. We've made a couple plays and connected on a few. We're just trying to continue to build chemistry. [Strome] and I have played with each other for a while now. He's a great player and makes a lot of plays, so it's fun to play with a guy like that. Obviously, [Grabovski's] the same … high-end skill."
Grabovski said, "[Brock's] a skilled player and he works hard. He just knows where the puck is always. I hope he doesn't stop working and makes his game better, but he's a young guy who doesn't have a lot of experience but he's a good future player who can score a lot of goals."
Strome was figured to be the Islanders' No. 2 center behind Tavares when they selected him at No. 5 at the 2011 draft. For now, it appears to be Nelson's job to lose and his strong start could leave Strome on the wing for a while. Strome said Wednesday it's not a big adjustment for a center to switch to the wing, a statement that's hard to argue with considering the success he and Grabovski have enjoyed with Nelson. Strome has four assists in three games; Grabovski has two goals and one assist.
"I think it'd be easier to play with three centermen than it would be to play with three wingers," Strome said. "We've put up some numbers, but I think we can still be better. I think all of us have more in us to give, 5-on-5 that is. I think we're continuing to learn and get accustomed to each other still."
As long as Nelson continues to use his frame (6-foot-3, 206 pounds) to his advantage, he and his linemates should continue to jell. And though Nelson may not end up among the League's scoring leaders in the spring, he's showing early signs of being a premier two-way center.
And the Islanders are showing they mean business.
"I think everybody's believing in ourselves right now," Nelson said. "There's a couple of big guys that we added that have been big factors right now for us and they're playing well. You just try to keep the ball rolling and continue to build."