DALLAS — Among the collective sighs of relief this week for the Islanders — defenseman Johnny Boychuk clearing in-game concussion protocol and returning to the ice, defenseman Thomas Hickey being able to skate three days after appearing to slam his head into the boards — was Brock Nelson missing only one period after taking a knee to his thigh.
Right now, Nelson is as valuable to the Islanders as he’s been since joining the team for the playoffs in 2013. He’s proving to new coach Barry Trotz that he’s worthy of being the team’s No. 1 center, replacing former captain John Tavares on a line with new captain Anders Lee.
Which also means the clock is ticking louder for president and general manager Lou Lamoriello to determine Nelson’s long-term future with the organization.
Nelson, 27, the 30th overall pick in 2010, agreed to a one-year, $4.25-million deal as a restricted free agent and is headed toward unrestricted free agency. He can sign an extension starting Jan. 1, but the NHL trade deadline is Feb. 25. Logically, the answer as to whether Nelson will remain an Islander will come in that window.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Nelson, tied with Lee for the team lead with 12 goals to go with his 11 assists. “I’m just going out there and play. That’s all you can really control. I don’t think you let your mind wander to that. Otherwise, it’s a distraction and it pulls you away.”
But Nelson is comfortable with the Islanders and likes what he sees from the new management team.
“I don’t know any other place. This is all I’ve known,” Nelson said. “We’ve played some good hockey this year. I know we’re capable of winning and playing with top teams. Everybody is on the same page of pulling the rope here. Barry and Lou have done a great job coming in right away and setting the expectations, and that’s exciting for us.”
The remarkably durable Nelson — he’s missed only two games in the past five seasons, including this one — could challenge his previous career highs of 26 goals (2015-16) and 45 points (2016-17).
After being kneed by Ian Cole at 17:55 of the second period and exiting Monday night’s 4-1 win at Colorado, Nelson dressed for Tuesday night’s 3-1 win at Arizona. He gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead off the rush with 21.1 seconds left in the first period against Vegas on Thursday night.
“He’s higher skilled than I thought,” Trotz said. “Positionally, he’s our soundest center-man by a long shot.”
After having their three-game winning streak snapped in Thursday night’s 4-2 loss at Vegas, the Islanders (17-13-4) did not practice Friday and conclude this four-game trip against the Stars on Sunday night.