Frans Nielsen's pride and joy comes from being a smart player in his own zone. The 29-year-old Islanders center talks often, and candidly, about wanting to be defensively responsible before thinking about offense.
That responsibility is admirable, but it has often been at odds with the role Nielsen is asked to play: That of a No. 2 center, a forward who provides secondary offense behind the top line. The middle of the Isles' forward lineup has been the most lacking since John Tavares joined the team and Nielsen has been ambivalent about being the guy to lead the charge and take some of the burden off Tavares.
Through eight games this season, Nielsen has not had that burden. He's in rare territory, among the league's top 30 scorers with four goals and four assists, an early point-per-game player whose history says he's a point-every-other-game player and a valuable checker and penalty killer.
"Frans wants to win and he's never really cared about putting up points for himself. But he's got all the skill that the big guys have," said Peter Regin, Nielsen's teammate this season and friend since before either one of them can recall. Regin and Nielsen grew up together in Herning, Denmark.
Nielsen has displayed a precise, quick-release wrist shot for three of his four goals so far, including one to open the scoring against the Sabres on Tuesday that was just exquisite: On a rush into the Buffalo zone, Nielsen dangled the puck toward the defenseman, pulled it back and snapped a shot over Ryan Miller's glove and into the upper corner of the net.
"We've scored some nice goals," Nielsen said. "We're definitely playing with confidence, but if you look at our goals, I think every goal has come from winning the puck in our end. We haven't scored anything off cycling the puck. I just think we're doing what we did in the end of last year, making sure we're trying to be good without the puck. Hopefully, they've got some lazy backcheckers and we're taking advantage of that."
This season, with his friend Regin filling the No. 3 center slot, Nielsen has embraced being a true No. 2 center. Mostly playing between Josh Bailey and Pierre-Marc Bouchard of late, Nielsen has been giving the Islanders the structure down the middle they have lacked for several seasons.
"I've been there for a while now, and it's been an issue for us that we didn't have anyone right behind Johnny to fill that No. 2 spot," Nielsen said. "I guess our line's been doing a good job filling it for now."
"It's an 82-game season and there's going to be nights you don't do that job. Hopefully, those nights, Peter's line, or (Casey Cizikas') line steps up to do it. It's not easy to produce over 82 games; it's amazing how Johnny does it. I want to play my game, it's been working for now."
Perhaps it's having Regin along as a teammate for the first time since they were teenagers. "I think maybe our parents are more excited about that," Nielsen said -- the Nielsens and the Regins have been friends since before their sons were born.
Or perhaps, after 375 games in an Islanders uniform, Nielsen has blossomed into the player Garth Snow thought when he rewarded Nielsen's consistency with a four-year, $11-million deal before last season. "I don't think he's doing anything different," Bailey said. "We certainly know he's been able to make those great plays on offense. But I don't see his mindset ever changing."