Alright boys and girls, let’s wade deeper into the #elite portion of our rankings (let’s not kid ourselves, they’re all elite) with our sixth-ranked prospect, Andrew Nielsen.
Nielsen is a fascinating prospect and there’s a lot to unpack here. To the votes!
Megan Kim /// Evan Presement /// Ryan Fancey /// Brayden Engel /// Scott Maxwell: 5
Ryan Hobart // Dylan Fremlin // Hayley Hendren: 6
Bobby Cappucino: 7
Adam Laskaris: 8
Shawn Reis: 9
Jon Steitzer: 10
Nielsen is as Good Ol’ Canadian Boy as it gets. He hails from Red Deer, Alberta, and is looking to become the 22nd player from the area to make the NHL. Current NHLers Red Deer has produced include Paul Postma, Colton Sceviour, and Kris Russell.
Toronto selected Nielsen out of Lethbridge with the 65th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Many wondered what the Leafs saw in the 6’3, 207-pound defenseman. He was big, didn’t put up points, and there were concerns about his skating. However, the Leafs’ brass clearly saw something they liked in the kid, and those concerns were quashed relatively quickly.
His offensive output improved substantially in his D+1 season, nearly averaging a point per game in the WHL. Because of his enhanced numbers, he was given a brief taste of the AHL at the end of the 2015-2016 season before becoming a permanent member of the Marlies the following year.
As I mentioned, Nielsen’s offensive output increased substantially in his draft+1 season, scoring 70 points in 71 games. The following season, his first with the Marlies, he led team in points by a defenseman. These are remarkable numbers regardless of position, but the fact that Nielsen posted them as a (20-year-old) d-man speaks volumes.
However, there are some things we need to talk about when it comes to his production. Nielsen is known as a powerplay specialist and quarterbacked the Marlies’ first unit last season. Also, based on his WHL numbers, it seems like he was the primary PP option on the back-end in Lethbridge, too.
In his 2015-2016 season, 28 (9g, 19a) of his 70 points came on the man advantage. That’s not a huge number or anything but still, it’s a theme that we continue to see play out. In the following season with the Marlies, 20 (4g, 16a) of his 39 points (51%) came on the powerplay.
I don’t want to make it seem like this is anything extremely uncommon, especially at the NHL level. Kevin Shattenkirk, Torey Krug, Shea Weber and Shayne Gsotisbehere are just a few of many players who scored ~50% of their points on the PP last season. Not ideal, sure, but not always something to look down upon.
We’re going to talk about why Nielsen is able to produce on the powerplay in a minute. First, I also want to quickly direct attention to the number of penalties he takes.
Nielsen loved to fight when he was in junior and his love for fisticuffs seems to have translated to the professional ranks. Offsetting penalties are not always bad (depends on what player gets penalized from the other team) but Nielsen may want to try to keep the fights down as he becomes a more important player to his team.
Also, Nielsen takes a lot of, frankly, undisciplined penalties. A lot of the people I talked to who watch Nielsen closely agree that as he matures, his PIMs should decrease, which is a good sign.
The Eye Test
Because I wasn’t able to make it out to as many Marlies games as I would have liked, I figured it wouldn’t be fair for me to break down Andrew Nielsen in my own words. Instead, I talked to The Athletic’s (and former Toronto Marlies video coach) Justin Bourne for some better insight.
One of the big knocks on Nielsen when he was drafted was that his skating needed work. Sure, everyone who’s not Connor McDavid’s skating needs work, but forwards can get away with being a little bit slower – d-men can’t.
When I asked Bourne about Nielsen’s least translatable NHL skill, he responded with “quickness.”
“The speed at which players can make cuts today is preposterous, so d-men need some dynamic pop to their step if they’re going to play tight D,” Bourne said.
Remember, being ‘quick’ or ‘fast’ isn’t just north/south speed. Pivots, cuts, turns, etc. all play a role in how well a player gets around the ice, which is something Bourne notes Nielsen has been working on.
“His skating has improved, particularly his pivots going back on pucks. Think of Nielsen as Bruno Caboclo. When the Raptors drafted him, they knew he was a ways away from the NBA, but they saw a crazy high ceiling, ala Giannis Antetonkounmpo. If he can fill out his lanky frame, improve those feet and find an edge, he could be a great NHLer. It’s up to him to put in the work and take those strides now.”
So while Nielsen clearly needs to work on his mobility, something he has a handle on is his offense. I mentioned earlier about how well Nielsen has produced offensively over the past two seasons, and when asked to identify Nielsen’s biggest strength, Bourne agrees.
“This sounds like an obnoxious answer, but I mean it sincerely: he can shoot the puck into the net,” Bourne says, noting how hard it is for players to score, especially on a fully set goalie. “Whatever it is about his shot – whether it’s hard, accurate or just deceptive – he’s one of the rare players who can put it by guys.”
In the long run, Bourne says Nielsen’s value will likely come on the powerplay, although there’s room for much more growth.
“I could see him being a power play specialist. What’s going to be interesting is to see what happens if he gets confidence in himself physically.” he says. “He’s tall, and his history in fights is that he’s beaten the crap out of people. But he doesn’t play with that confidence… if he gets stronger and starts to feel he can push people around, maybe he could be more than that.”
Bourne ended by saying that Nielsen showed great progress near the end of last season but that he’s still so raw that it’s hard to say when we should expect to see him in the NHL.
While there’s good and bad that comes with every prospect, it definitely seems like we’ll be more than willing to take the bad that comes with Andrew Nielsen’s good.
If you’d like to read more of Bourne’s thoughts on Nielsen, he wrote a great article for The Athletic that you can read here.
As Seen on TV
Since I’ve talked extensively about Nielsen’s offensive abilities, now’s the time to show you. Here’s a perfect example of what Justin was talking about when he mentioned how Nielsen is able to straight up beat goalies:
And another example:
You can see just how hard and how accurate his shot can be. One thing I’ve noticed myself while watching some of his game tape is how he’s able to shoot it where he wants. It sounds simple, sure, but if everyone was able to do it, there’d be a lot more goals scored.
Here’s high 2016-2017 highlight reel:
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Nielsen will start the year with the Marlies and will likely remain there for the entire season.
This is definitely the best thing for his development. As Justin alluded to, he’s still extremely raw and, unless he’s had an NHL summer on steroids, won’t be ready to handle to rigors of a full NHL season. Also, the Leafs/Marlies added a few more good, young defensemen to their roster in Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen. Both are left-shot d-men, just like Nielsen, so hopefully the competition will be good for him.
I think that after this season, depending on how it goes, we can begin to entertain the conversation of Nielsen potentially making the jump in 2018-2019. Until then, he’s best served in the minors, learning under a smart coach like Sheldon Keefe and plying his trade.
Andrew Nielsen is a perfect example of the type of prospect the Leafs should be targeting. No, I’m not talking about targeting prospects based on position. I’m talking about the idea of targeting prospects with high ceilings… with the chance to be elite.
Will he be the next great point producer in the NHL? It’s unlikely. But what the Leafs have done here is found a guy where it’s possible, no matter how unlikely it seems, to entertain the idea that it could happen.
The more high-ceiling players a team drafts, the more good players they’ll end up with. Will they hit on every single one? No. In fact, they’ll hit on very few. It’s the ones they do hit on, though, that will make all the difference.
Third pairing defensemen and bottom six forwards are all replaceable. Why draft guys who you can sign for under $1 million every August? It makes no sense.
Anyways, Nielsen will no doubt be one of the most interesting players to watch this season. Will he flourish in his second professional season or will he crumble under the pressure of being one of the team’s top prospects? Only time will tell, but if Nielsen’s proven anything thus far, it’s that playing the prediction game is a pointless exercise.
Previously, on TLN Top 20 Prospect Rankings 2017
#7 Joseph Woll
#8 Andreas Johnsson
#9 Yegor Korshkov
#10 Eemeli Rasanen
#11 Dmytro Timashov
#12 Andreas Borgman
#13 Calle Rosen
#14 Miro Aaltonen
#15 Trevor Moore
#16 JD Greenway
#17 Justin Holl
#18 Jesper Lindgren
#19 Vladimir Bobylyov
#20 Nikolai Chebykin