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Behind The Bench: Frans Nielsen

by on 08/01/2011

Born: April 24, 1984
Ht: 6’0″
Wt: 187 lbs
Draft: 87th overall by the New York Islanders in 2002
Plays for: New York Islanders, Center, Shoots Left
Jersey No.: #51

NHL Stats

Regular Season: 237 GP – 37 G – 83 A – 129 P
Playoffs: 0 GP – 0 G – 0 A – 0 P

Frans Nielsen is the first of three Danish forwards STP will be featuring this week.

Frans Nielsen is the first Danish citizen to player in the NHL. Poul Popiel was the first Danish-born player to play in the NHL, Popiel entered the league in the late 60’s. Although Popiel was the first Danish-born NHL player, he was not a Danish citizen, he had become an American citizen prior to his debut, leaving Nielsen as the first Danish citizen in the NHL.

Nielsen was drafted 87th overall by the Islanders but did not sign a contract with the Isles until May 15, 2006. He signed a two-year ELC. Nielsen started the 06/07 season with the Isles AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers but was recalled to the Islanders half way through the season. At the time of his recall, Nielsen has recorded a point in 9 consecutive games, 3 short of a Sound Tigers’ club record. Nielsen spent 15 games with the Isles, primarily in a 4th line role, going scoreless for 14 of them. Nielsen had 2 points in the 15 games he played before being sent back down to Bridgeport. Nielsen finished his first season with the Sound Tigers, Nielsen played in 54 games and recorded 24 goals, 24 assists and 44 points.

Nielsen started the 07/08 season with the Sound Tigers, he started the season strong and was called up half way through the season. Nielsen could not translate his AHL success to the NHL level but to his credit, Nielsen was only averaging 8 mins a night on the fourth line. Nielsen spent 16 games with the club, went scoreless in 13 and only tallied 3 points.

In 102 AHL games, Nielsen totalled 30 goals and 52 assist for 82 points, in 31 NHL games, Nielsen totalled 3 goals and 2 assists for 5 points.

During the 08 off-season, Nielsen was rewarded for the potential the Isles’ management saw in him. He was rewarded a four-year one-way $2.1M contract extension. Nielsen made the Isles’ opening day roster for the 08/09 season. He started the season slowly with only 2 points in October but stepped up his game in November, recording 2 goals and 5 assists in 10 games before going down on November 21, 2008 with a right leg injury that cause him to miss 23 games. Nielsen returned to the Isles’ lineup on January 13, 2009 and played the rest of the season. Nielsen played 54 games during the 08/09 season and tallied 9 goals and 24 assists for 33 points. Nielsen was injured during the 09/10 preseason and missed the first 6 games of the season with a knee injury. Nielsen was healthy for the remainder of the season and played in all 76 games. Although he played 17 more games than he did the previous season, Nielsen only improved on his previous point total by 5. He finished the season with 12 goals and 26 assists for 38 points.

Garth snow was finally rewarded for his 4 year gamble with Nielsen during the third year of his contract. Nielsen was the breakout performer of the 10/11 season. He didn’t score 40 goals or 40 assists nor did he surpass the 50 point mark. Nielsen finished the season playing in 71 games, he missed 7 games in January with a strained groin and was shut down for the last 4 games of the season with a concussion he suffered from a Marian Gaborik shoulder check. Nielsen recorded career-highs in goals (13), assists (31), points (44) and penalty minutes (38). It should be noted, Nielsen only had 9 minor penalties but was assets two 10 minute misconducts penalties. Although Nielsen only tallied 13 goals this season, half of them came on the penalty kill. Nielsen scored a league leading 7 short handed goals and one of them was a short handed penalty shot goal. Nielsen also led the league in short handed scoring while leading the Isle’s with the best giveaway-takeaway ratio at 1:2 and was first among Isles forwards for blocked shots. He also finished tied for first on the team in plus/minus with a plus 13 rating, quite the achievement playing on a team with more than 75% of it’s players in the minus.

Below is a breakdown of previous league leaders in short handed goals and short handed points since the lockout.

  • 2009 – 2010: Marian Hossa and Alex Burrows tie for league lead in SHG (5). Alex Burrows leads the league SHP (7).
  • 2008 – 2009: Mike Richards leads the league in both SHG (7) and SHP (9)
  • 2007 – 2008: Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Sharp tie for league led in both SHG (7). Eric Perrin leads the league in SHP (10)
  • 2006 – 2007: Jordan Staal leads the league in SHG (7) and Martin St. Louis leads the league in SHP (11)
  • 2005 – 2006: Marian Hossa leads the league in SHG (7) and is tied with Matt Stajan for lead in SHP (8)

Since the lockout, only St. Louis (11), Perrin (10) and Richards (9) have had more short handed points than Frans Nielsen in a single season and only nobody has scored more than 7 short handed goals since the lockout. In fact, since the 1997-1998 season, only two players have scored 7 short handed goals; Theo Fleury and Wes Walz in 00/01 and only three players have scored more than 7 short handed goals in a season, Steve Sullivan scored 8 in 00/01, Brian Rolston scored 9 in 01/02, and Martin St. Louis scored 8 in 03/04.

Is Nielsen an elite two-way forward like some of the players mentioned above, lets take a look at the comparable numbers for those who have scored 7 or more SHG over the last decade.

SHG LEADER TEAM GP G A P +/- SHG SHG/ G* SHG/ GAME* SH TOI SH TOI /GAME
2010-2011 Frans Nielsen NYI 71 13 31 44 13 7 0.538 0.098 212:47 2:59
2008-2009 Mike Richards PHI 79 30 50 80 22 7 0.233 0.088 252:48 3:12
2007-2008 Daniel Alfredsson OTT 70 29 58 87 15 7 0.241 0.100 196:34 2:48
Patrick Sharp CHI 80 36 26 62 23 7 0.194 0.087 188:19 2:21
2006-2007 Jordan Staal PIT 81 29 13 42 16 7 0.241 0.086 245:48 3:02
2005-2006 Marian Hossa ATL 80 39 53 92 17 7 0.179 0.087 208:56 2:36
2003-2004 Martin St. Louis TB 82 38 56 94 35 8 0.210 0.097 132:11 1:36
2001-2002 Brian Rolston BOS 82 31 31 62 11 9 0.111 0.110 309:48 3:46
2000-2001 Steve Sullivan CHI 78 21 39 60 3 8 0.381 0.103 179:28 2:18
*SHG/G – Short handed goal scored vs Goals scored average
*SHG/Game – Short handed goals per game player

Based on the above, Nielsen is not an elite two-way forward because he doesn’t produce the same numbers the others do, nor does Jordan Staal. Although, the numbers do show that Nielsen was a penalty kill specialist last year scoring just over half of his goals short handed. Nielsen may very well be the best penalty killer in the league today, what better way to kill a penalty than to score short handed. It will be interesting to see if Nielsen really is a penalty kill specialist or if it was a one-year fluke. If he really is a penalty kill specialist, he’ll have a lot of money thrown his way when he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season by general managers looking to improve their PK.

Nielsen is likely to start the season centering the second line, barring any concussion symptoms, and should be flanked by Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo. Nielsen should also continue to center the first penalty kill unit with Grabner. Last year the duo combined for 13 short handed goals, the speed both players bring to the penalty kill make the Islanders’ PK deadlier than their PP. Islanders fans hope the due can continue that trend this coming year.

Nielsen is probably the most underrated player in the league, ahead of fellow countryman, Jannik Hansen and Teddy Purcell. Nielsen is a great skater with great speed and quick feet. He also shown several times during breakaways and shoot outs that he has silky smooth hands and has a very dangerous backhand deke. Nielsen is a good playmaker and has a great sense for the pace of the game and when he should make plays. He has a good shot that can beat a few unsuspecting goalies, high glove side. He can also be very creative with the puck in the offensive zone.

Nielsen is a dependable offensive threat but it’s his hockey sense and accountability in his own zone that make him such a great player. Nielsen has a keen awareness of his duties as a center and he fully embraces them. Watching him play, once could say he enjoys playing defense over offense. It should be mentioned that Nielsen has never played a playoff game and it is unknown whether he will be able to keep his speed game up during the more physical second season. Though Nielsen does play the Rangers and Flyers a few times every year and has had no problem producing against them.

Not only is Nielsen a great penalty killer, he extremely disciplined and will rarely take a penalty. In 237 games, he has a total of 62 penalty minutes, only 42 of those are minor penalties. That works out to be 1 penalty every 17 games, which is 5 penalties every 82 games. I think only Kyle Wellwood takes less penalties, who is he playing for again? With Nielsen’s low penalty minutes, superb penalty killing and increase point production, it will only be a matter of time until he gets a Lady Byng nomination.

Nielsen only has a few areas he needs to improve his game in. The most important is faceoffs, Nielsen has been below 50% in faceoffs every year except one since entering the league. As a defense and penalty kill specialist, he needs to be able to win those key defensive draws. He also needs to be stronger on the puck, too often does he get knocked off the puck or into the boards. These two things really go hand in hand. If Nielsen improves his overall strength, he should subsequently improve his draw ability.

Nielsen will be a very important piece for the Islanders in the future when they turn things around and become contenders again. The only worry for Nielsen’s future will be his speed game, as age catches up, speed is always the first to go. Nielsen has also had a few leg and knee injuries that could bother him in the future or if he has any future leg/knee injuries. If Nielsen can stay healthy, there should be little worry about his future.

“He’s our best all-around player even though his stats don’t necessarily show it.”
-Former Islanders’ Captain Doug Weight on Frans Nielsen’s play

Behind The Bench appears Monday to Friday only on puckpuckgoose.com.

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