"Different teams are looking for different players and different attributes. Ben brings that offensive flair. He can work the half-wall on the power play. His shot is getting stronger. If a team is looking for an offensive guy, he might be able to make that jump."
-- Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal
Year in and year out, Idaho Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal
prides himself in having a quality mix of veterans and rookies.
As far as the latter portion of that combination is concerned, Laxdal may have one of the league's best first-year players in center Ben Nelson.
The 25-year-old from Spokane, Wash., is off to a tremendous start with the Steelheads, as he ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 18 points in 27 games. His 11 goals lead Idaho, which earned a 4-3 victory on home ice against the Bakersfield Condors Wednesday night.
"It's great to have good veterans around him in the dressing room," Laxdal told NHL.com. "(Forward) Steve Gainey
's been great for me. They're working with these kids and teaching them, helping them on the bench. These kids have are very receptive to it. I'd love to see Ben get better and better as the season goes along. That could be the difference between winning and losing and making a playoff push."
The fast start to his rookie campaign has even surprised Nelson, who is coming off a four-year stint with Quinnipiac University, where he tallied 134 points in 143 games.
"It's been good so far," Nelson said. "You always wonder if you can move up to that next level, if you're going to be able to do what you did at the previous level. So far, so good. I'm enjoying it."
Nelson had a brief taste of the ECHL after his 2007-08 collegiate season ended, and he quickly made an impact with the South Carolina Stingrays. In seven games for Jared Bednar
's club, Nelson scored four times.
He nearly signed a deal to play for South Carolina this season, but ultimately decided to join Idaho due to its close proximity to Spokane.
"I had all intentions to go back to South Carolina," Nelson said. "I'm originally from Washington, so it's a lot closer. (Laxdal) seemed like a good coach. After I played in South Carolina, I talked to three or four other teams. A couple of older guys said Idaho was a real good place to play. It's close to home."
Nelson's collegiate career and his impact on South Carolina earned him an invitation to the Hartford Wolf Pack's (AHL) training camp. While he didn't make the team, Nelson has taken everything in stride and fully intends to work his way up to the American Hockey League.
"I was never drafted or anything like that, so going to the NHL or AHL right off the start was obviously not the path that I was going to take," Nelson said. "I've got to work my way up."
Laxdal has been extremely impressed with Nelson's hands and overall offensive abilities. The Steelheads coach believes the first-year pro needs to work on his skating during his time in the ECHL.
"He's got some work to do," Laxdal said. "He's obviously got the head and the skill to play at the next level. The biggest thing he's got to work on is his speed. He's got a stride there, but he's got to gain some more power. That's part of becoming a professional hockey player."
That being said, Laxdal has been extremely impressed with just how quickly Nelson has asserted himself as one of Idaho's top performers both on the power play and at even strength. Eight of Nelson's 11 goals have come with the man advantage.
"Ben's off to a good start," Laxdal said. "He got some quality ice time right off the hop. We're a young hockey club. Ben's really addressed himself on the power play. He's been a scorer wherever he's played. He's got tremendous offensive talent."
Besides being close to home, Nelson admitted that Laxdal's hockey background played a huge role in his decision to join the Steelheads. Laxdal -- who coached Idaho to a Kelly Cup championship in 2007 -- appeared in 16 games for the New York Islanders
between 1989 and 1991.
"He's had the experience. He knows," Nelson said. "There's some guys that never played that get into coaching positions and can do it, but there's a lot that can't. Having a guy who has been there in the NHL, he knows what to expect and what to expect from his players. He treats you like a professional."
Whether Nelson will get a shot in the AHL this season remains to be seen, but his ability to produce on the power play may be difficult for Triple-A clubs to ignore. Laxdal didn't rule out the possibility of a promotion.
"You never know when that's going to come," Laxdal said. "Different teams are looking for different players and different attributes. Ben brings that offensive flair. He can work the half-wall on the power play. His shot is getting stronger. If a team is looking for an offensive guy, he might be able to make that jump."
For now, though, Nelson is simply focused on piling up the points in Idaho and helping the Steelheads make their push in an extremely-competitive West Division.
"We'll see how this year goes and hopefully I'll get a shot next year," Nelson said. "I just have to keep working hard and go from there."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.