In their first conversation after he became the Islanders’ coach, Barry Trotz laid out his belief in Brock Nelson, certain the previous staff had not maximized his ability.
“The first conversation was I thought he was a better player than just from afar,” Trotz said. “I didn’t see a lot of warts on Nellie when we had him and we got to know him. I thought they were missing out on what he could bring to the group. He knows how important he is to the group and he has embraced the responsibility of being a good player on a pretty decent team.”
The Islanders, who did not practice on Monday, are on an 11-0-1 streak as they conclude a season-high four-game homestand against the Maple Leafs and former Isles captain John Tavares on Wednesday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
Tavares’ exit via free agency to the Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018, just 10 days after Trotz was hired by the Islanders following his Stanley Cup win with the Capitals, also played a factor in Nelson’s emergence as a top-six forward.
Nelson, 28, who eschewed unrestricted free agency and agreed to a six-year, $36 million deal with the Islanders on May 23, is second on the team in scoring with four goals and seven assists after another typically strong start. October hasn’t been dubbed “Brocktober” the past few seasons for nothing.
“I think it helped quite a bit,” Nelson said of getting a bigger role under Trotz. “The first couple of years, I think I had pretty good years — but maybe the situation with the guys we had, it just wasn’t the biggest of roles. Not to fault anybody. Just maybe I wasn’t moving upward. Some space opened up when Johnny left, and different guys have stepped up.”
Nelson set career highs last season with 28 assists and 53 points as he spent most of the season between Anders Lee and right wing Jordan Eberle. This season, he’s settled in between left wing Anthony Beauvillier and converted center Derick Brassard on the second line.
But Nelson’s value goes beyond that. He’s become Trotz’s most reliable faceoff-taker — he won 17 of 25 (68%) in Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Panthers at Barclays Center — as well as a fixture on the power play and penalty kill. He logged a season-high 24:35 on Saturday.
The key is Trotz using him in the right spots. Nelson is more effective as a two-way center than being relied on solely for his offense.
“I haven’t asked him to do some of the things that were asked of him before,” Trotz said. “I didn’t think that was a part of his game, necessarily. So I just asked him to play to his strengths. He’s a very detailed guy. He’s got skill. He’s got range. You can trust him defensively, so we’re giving him a bigger piece of the pie.”
“You’re not always impacting the game on the scoresheet when you play that style, but I think it’s productive for me,” Nelson added. “Barry has the same vision for where I’m at.”