The Leafs’ farm team has clinched first place in the AHL but the rigours of playoff hockey often wear on any team, no matter the league. Every team needs players who are ready to step in; the “black aces” if you will.
Meet one of them: 19-year-old Andrew Nielsen.
His numbers weren’t exactly mind-blowing last season: Seven goals, 17 assists for 24 points in 59 WHL games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes as a draft-eligible defender. NHL Central Scouting had Nielsen ranked 52nd among North American Skaters and ISS hockey had him ranked 120th. The Leafs decided to draft Nielsen in the third round, 65th overall in the 2015 NHL draft less than one year ago.
This season, in a year where headlines were dominated by the Leafs’ rebuild, the Marlies’ dominance, and endless draft picks, Nielsen was putting in work with Lethbridge. He registered 18 goals, 52 assists, and 70 points in 71 games. Just a reminder – he plays defence.
What does he think was behind the 46-point jump?
“I think just maturity and more confidence,” Nielsen told me last week. “Coming to a pro camp really helped move that maturity factor along, having more opportunity on the first line power play and obviously more ice time. You’re on the ice more, you’re going to get a chance to score more. Being a year older, going back in the summer and being stronger.
“I worked a lot on my first step and that allowed me to get open a lot more and be able to find those shot lanes, and even finding guys on the ice was a little easier this year.”
Neilsen grew up in Red Deer cheering for the Calgary Flames. He was just seven-years-old when the Flames made the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 and he was six when the Flames drafted Dion Phaneuf in 2003.
When asked who he tries to emulate on the ice, Nielsen picked another ex-Flame: Jay Bouwmeester.
“Just the way he kind of controls the game with his vision and his ability to move the puck and beat people with passes. And then once he gets on the offensive side of the blue line he can create stuff, whether it’s walking the line, getting point shots through and finding those lanes, and quarterbacking the power play. I like to think that I could do everything. I take pride in my defensive zone, as well. I was plus/minus +30 this year or something like that (he was exactly plus-30). I don’t like getting scored on.”
So what have we established here? Andrew Nielsen is a Leafs prospect who had a great season. That’s exciting, right? That’s considered good news when the NHL team is rebuilding and finishes dead last. At some point the work the Leafs have put into this rebuild, as well as the prospects the Leafs have acquired, will have to pay dividends at the NHL level to keep fans happy.
Nielsen concedes there are nerves with being a prospect for a team that is betting its future on prospects.
“I think so. I mean, if you look at the guys that were drafted ahead of me with Marner, Bracco, and Dermott, they obviously are three highly-skilled guys. If you’re going to compete with them, you’ve got to be able to put up points and be solid defensively, and just be one of the top players.
“You look at the way that the Leafs are going with the young, skills guys. The opportunity’s right there if I want it. You feel the pressure a little bit, but if you’re a real hockey player I think you enjoy that pressure and you enjoy playing with the spotlight on you. I’m going to go out every night and know that I’m one of the guys that’s keyed on and one of the guys that’s looked upon to carry the team. Now that I’m up here I just want to come in and fill a role and hopefully work myself into that spot one day. There’s obviously pressure, but it’s fun to play with that pressure.”
As for next season, Nielsen’s late birthday, Nov. 13, allows him to be eligible for both the American Hockey League or a return to junior hockey in the WHL. But will the Marlies have an open spot for him? Might he force their hand and create a spot for himself with strong play?
Will a defender who scored 70 points last season learn much if he continues to play junior?
As for the immediate future, it will be difficult for any 19-year-old not named William Nylander to earn a spot on the Marlies during the playoffs. If he gets the call though, Nielsen says he’s ready.
“I mean obviously you look around the room and we obviously have a lot of depth. If I’m gonna get a shot I’m gonna take advantage of it and hopefully once I get in I don’t get taken out and show them that I can be a contributor to their team as a young guy, and as a call-up, and hopefully they like what they see and keep me in the lineup.”