When the Red Wings signed center Frans Nielsen on July 1, 2016, the immediate reaction was almost entirely devoted to his contract, which is understandable. I read the vast majority of the comments on July 1 and 2, and I can't remember one that said he or she was fine with the six year term. In fact, the only person that day, other than Nielsen and his immediate family, who felt the six year term was a solid idea was New York Islanders GM Garth Snow, who offered Nielsen a seven year contract to stay on Long Island.
Believe Nielsen gets $30 million for six years with DET. #Isles had offered seven years at slightly more total.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) July 1, 2016
But the contract is the contract, and while I'm not saying people shouldn't be critical of it, at the end of the day, Frans Nielsen is a Red Wing, and we should start looking at what that's going to mean for next season.
I've seen Nielsen play many times, but I wanted to reach out to people who have seen him more, including some die-hard Islanders fans, particularly Dan Saraceni, who is one of the two main writers for Lighthouse Hockey, the Islanders SB Nation blog.
I wrote the free agent target profile for Nielsen, which includes his HERO chart and a highlight video. The stats show that Nielsen would be a solid second line center for the Wings for at least the first two or three seasons of his tenure here.
If you watch the video in the above link, you will see Nielsen score a bunch of goals, some spectacular like this one:
IMPORTANT NOTE: CLICK ON THE GIF TO SEE A LARGER, SLOWED DOWN VIEW
This one is a little fast, but you see him go around one player, beat another two, then flip a backhand by the goalie. Nielsen is a player capable of scoring highlight reel goals like this, but that's not his normal style of play.
I wanted to break down what he brings to the team and use video from one game to show that. I chose Game Six of the Islanders series with the Panthers this past season. It was a game with a great deal of pressure (the Islanders had a chance at home to win a playoff series for the first time since 1993), and it was one of the last games the Islanders would play this year. With age being a concern, I felt it made sense to look at a game from late in the season.
I watched the entire game, focusing on Nielsen every time he was on the ice. I wrote down any time he did something noticeable, either positive or negative, and examples of what Dan from LHH told me about his play. Remember, this is only one game, so it's not going to be a highlight reel.
What kind of player is Frans Nielsen?
I asked Dan what other NHL players would he compare Nielsen to, and this is what he had to say:
I've always thought of Nielsen as a mini version of Patrice Bergeron, who's a consistent scorer that is extra defensively responsible and solid in all situations. He's not as good as Bergeron (or Anze Kopitar, who's also the same kind of player), but he's built in that mold.
Here is a two gif series that shows a good amount of one of Nielsen's shifts. (Putting it all in one gif was a no go).
In this sequence, NY was trailing 1-0 with just under 15:00 left in the third period. Nielsen starts off near the bottom of the screen, gets good position between his man and the net, then recovers the rebound and makes the safe play. His teammate can't chip the puck out of the zone, but Nielsen made the safe play, nonetheless.
The next gif picks up right where the first one left off. The puck stays in the zone, Nielsen recovers back to a good position, blocks the shot, then safely carries the puck out of the zone. The gif cuts off right before he makes the pass, but you can see how by not rushing and pulling the puck back, he creates the lane for the outlet pass.
This leads me to another question I asked Dan: Would you characterize Nielsen as a defensive center who can put up points, or an offensive center who is defensively responsible? His response:
I think that Nielsen thinks of himself as a defensive player who can score. He takes real pride in that part of the game and seems to see scoring as something that can be done when the opportunity strikes after preventing a goal against first. This might sound like a knock against his chances as a top line center, but to me it just makes him a responsible player, which is kind of a rare commodity.
In the Florida game, his defensive abilities saved his team, as Florida went on a shorthanded two-on-one rush after Brock Nelson missed the puck. Because of the quality of the gif, you may not be able to see it clearly, but Nielsen deflects an aerial pass, effectively breaking up the scoring chance.
But, like Dan said above, Nielsen is more than just a defensive player. One of the thoughts that came to my mind over and over watching every shift in the Florida game is how smart he plays. He's one of those players that defenses lose track of until he's between them and the goalie tapping in a wide open shot. Here's a clip from the game that shows his ability to go to where the puck will be. He starts on the top of the screen, gaining the blue line before pulling back to make a smart pass. You'll see the rest.
The last clip from the Florida game shows that Nielsen is not only a positionally sound, safe player, but he also has some offensive creativity. Nick Leddy fires the puck around the boards as his team changes. Nielsen comes in at the top of your screen, and with a quick flick, puts the puck right on his teammate's stick for a shot.
You might be asking yourself, "self, why aren't there any bad videos? Is this just a ploy to make us not upset anymore?" That's an excellent question. When I set out to watch all two-and-a-half hours of play, I was looking for mistakes as well. In this game, Nielsen didn't do anything that stood out negatively. Again, remember this is only one game.
I heard something about his shootout skills
I couldn't call this an in-depth profile without including a section about Nielsen's shootout performance. Since its inception, he has been over 50% in his career in the shootout. His go-to move has been dubbed the Danish Backhand of Judgment. He frequently makes even the best goalies look foolish. Here's that move:
Since every goalie knows what he likes to do by now, he mixes it up with some forehand moves, like the one below:
So where should he play?
In the near future, we'll have a series for you where we predict who will play where, including the special teams units. I started writing this article hoping to show that Nielsen will be a strong second line center for the Wings, and I think that's correct. However, without lineup changes, the team doesn't seem to have someone who is a definite top-line center.
So, when I talked to Dan, I asked him a few questions about exactly that. He said:
Back in 2014, after John Tavares was hurt at the Olympics, Nielsen became the Islanders de facto first line center. Unsurprisingly, he played the same smart, responsible and productive game he always did. If the Red Wings asked him to be their first line center, he probably would without question because that's the kind of person he is. I don't think he'll score enough to be a true first line center, so using him there for long periods of time might become a problem.
I don't want to go too much into it, since Kyle will be discussing the top-six forwards soon, but here's my take:
If Dylan Larkin shows the coaching staff at camp and in the preseason that he is at least close to being able to take on top-line center responsibilities, then he should be our 1C. But, if that's not the case, I'd like to see Nielsen start the season on the top line, then hopefully get Larkin ready to step up later in the season.
It's easier to see what a player can do on the ice than off it, but we know how important the latter can be to a team. I asked Dan what intangibles Nielsen brings to the team, and his answer was very promising:
He's worn an "A" for the Islanders for some time and was a leader in the locker room. As far as I know, there's never been a cross word said about him, and his (now ex-) teammates praised his unselfishness and reliability. Losing him is going to have a huge effect on the team's make up. To be honest, as a fan, I'm scared of just how much of an effect it will have.
Frans Nielsen will make this team better than it was on June 30. He won't replace Pavel Datsyuk, and he isn't a true top-line center. But he is someone capable of filling that role until Dylan Larkin is ready, as well as a leader, a positionally sound player at both ends, and someone who can be counted on to make the safe play in pressure situations.