Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.
If it seems that Brock Nelson is scoring more off his wicked wrist shot than he was last season, it’s true. Nelson, who leads the Isles with 18 goals and has four in his last two games, has been producing more from long range this season.
“I always felt like I had a pretty good shot,” Nelson said. “Now I’ve had a few go in.”
The 24-year-old Nelson scored 20 goals last season and all but five of those came from below the hash marks — roughly 20 feet and closer to the opposing net. His torrid start last season, when he produced 14 goals before the December holiday break, came from getting regular work as the net-front forward on the top power play unit and from being adept at finding loose pucks in tight spaces around the goal.
Or having pucks find him. Who can forget Johnny Boychuk’s blast that banked off Nelson’s knee and in on opening night in Raleigh last season? Nelson was a puck magnet in the slot for the first half of 2014-15.
This season, Nelson’s power play time is down (1:55 per game compared to 2:42 a year ago), so he’s needed to find other ways to score. Enter his wrist shot, which has caught a few opponents off-guard as evidenced by the room he’s been given when entering the zone. Of his 18 goals, 11 have been from outside the hash marks.
“One thing he’s worked on a lot is his release, getting that shot off quicker,” Jack Capuano said. “You can see him after practice, out there putting in the time.”
Nelson knows he’s not going to keep up his scoring pace by just firing away every time he gets the puck while skating with speed. “You try to change angles, do some things to change it up a bit,” he said. “Hopefully you can get it going around the net, too. You have to do different things to score goals in this league.”
As Nelson approaches his 200th NHL game on Friday in Ottawa, he’s emerging as a reliable goal scorer — something the Islanders need with John Tavares off his usual pace and Anders Lee and Ryan Strome combining for only 10 goals so far.
De Haan shouldering the load
Calvin de Haan’s incredible consistency on defense this season hasn’t drawn much notice, not with a top four defense that features Nick Leddy’s skating ability, the physical presence of Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk’s big shot.
But with Hamonic and Boychuk out, de Haan has become a first-pair player with Leddy and been just as good as he’s played all season.
“Best he’s played for us,” Capuano said of de Haan, whom the coach scratched eight times over the final 24 games of last season. “He’s a big reason why we’re having some success with those two guys out.”
De Haan is fifth in the league with 105 blocked shots, which is a statistic hated by the analytics crowd (because you don’t have the puck) and loved by coaches (because you’re willing to sacrifice to make a play). His possession numbers are positive, which is impressive on an Islanders team that has been below average in that respect.
So de Haan’s steady rise to being a legitimate top-four defenseman is important not just while Hamonic and Boychuk are sidelined. If Garth Snow honors Hamonic’s trade request and moves him in the summer, the general manager may not see a need to get a top-pair defenseman back — that could bring a more diverse haul in return to fill other needs.
Quenneville passes Arbour
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville moved into second place on the coaching wins list this week, passing Al Arbour with his 783rd victory.
“Trying to play against his teams over the years, he was one of those guys that was distinguished behind the bench,” Quenneville said. “He had a Scotty [Bowman] type of an aura back there. His teams were always winning teams and they always played hard and were tough to play against. I think as a player you heard a lot of good things about Al as well. His teams were successful, and catching him, I’m very honored.”
Most NHL coaching victories: