OTTAWA – So here we are a dozen games into the season and the New York Islanders have a guy in the top 10 in scoring. Nothing unusual about that. But what might surprise you is that the big dog for the Islanders at the moment is a Great Dane.
Going into tonight’s game against the Ottawa Senators, it’s Frans Nielsen, not John Tavares, who leads the team in both goals (seven) and points (15), which puts him in ninth place in the NHL’s scoring race. It also puts him on pace for 48 goals and 103 points, which would make him a pretty shrewd hockey pool acquisition right about now.
It also might be expecting a little too much. Nielsen is fast and skilled, but is suited more to being a two-way center than an offensive force. It’s a role that even Nielsen finds a little foreign, but one that he’s happy to fill as long as he’s able.
“I’ve never really seen myself as a point producer,” he said. “I try to be a good, solid, two-way player, but we’ve kind of been creating all our goals off being good defensively, actually. We’ve been pretty good at getting the puck in the neutral zone and beating them up the ice and scoring off the rush. We’ve been really good, I guess, on the 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s.”
Nielsen’s career high for goals is 17, so to expect him to push 50 might be stretching things a little. The problem with Nielsen is the one that is shared by a lot of fast skating, two-way players. They have the speed and skill set to create chances for themselves, but they often don’t have the ability to finish them off. Think Mike Fisher.
“I feel I always have created a lot of chances and had lots of good opportunities,” he said. “For some reason, it hasn’t gone in. Some people just have it and I’m hoping with some confidence it’s going to start going in for me. But when you see a guy like JT (Tavares) or Mouls (former Islander Matt Moulson), when they get it in the slot, it’s a guaranteed goal. Some guys just have that. It’s not easy.”
If it were, everybody would be able to do it. Well, not everybody, but guys like Nielsen would be perennial 50-goal scorers. Nielsen has always been a little reticent to shoot the puck and even during this hot streak, he’s only averaging 2.2 shots per game. He’s been seen as more of a set-up guy than a scorer and is one of those guys who can excel on both special teams.
Nielsen is just 29, so there is room to grow. He’s playing this season primarily with newly acquired Pierre-Marc Bouchard on his left and the emerging Josh Bailey on his right. He’s usually first out on the penalty kill and on the second power play. Along with playing a regular shift on the second line, the opportunities are there.
“He does the right things,” said Islanders coach Jack Capuano. “We talk about it all the time. He’s a guy that even when we had him down (on the farm team) in Bridgeport to now, he just does a lot of things correct. And he does a lot of things away from the puck really well and I think that’s why he’s putting the numbers up. He had a lot of chances last year. I just think right now, and hopefully it will continue, the puck is going in for him.”
• Coming off a 1-3-0 road trip that included blowing a third period lead and losing 6-5 to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Senators are going with a new look. Coach Paul MacLean has kept his first line of Kyle Turris between Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur together, but has shuffled his other lines and defense pairings. Zack Smith was moved into Jason Spezza’s spot between Milan Michalek and Mika Zibanejad, with Spezza taking a spot between Chris Neil and Cory Conacher. Derek Grant centers the fourth line between Colin Greening and Erik Condra.
On defense, the Erik Karlsson-Marc Methot pairing was split up, with Karlsson joining Chris Phillips and Methot paired with Patrick Wiercioch. Jared Cowen and Joe Corvo make up the third pairing.
The Senators seemed to be a pretty cranky bunch after their morning skate, but MacLean managed to inject some humor into the situation when asked about tips for growing a Movember moustache. “Use lots of fertilizer,” he said. “Molson Canadian works for me.”