Barry Trotz was told about Brocktober when he was hired. He had no idea what that meant.
But Trotz has learned a lot about Brock Nelson in his two-plus seasons as Islanders coach. One of them being Nelson’s traditionally strong starts to the season can now be counted on to consistently carry over to the rest of the season.
Nelson entered Saturday’s game against the Capitals at Nassau Coliseum leading the Islanders with 16 goals. That included a team-high six power-play goals. Nelson also led the team in goals last season and was tied with Mathew Barzal for the most man-advantage goals. In the Islanders’ 22-game run to the last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Nelson tied Anthony Beauvillier with a team-high nine goals.
"I had no clue what a Brocktober was until I got here," Trotz said before Saturday’s game. "The first thing they said is, ‘Brock usually comes out pretty good in October and plays really well and then he has a dry patch.’ He still has Brocktober. But we also have November, December, January. He’s had those, too."
Of course, this season is a bit different as the NHL tries to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic with a shortened 56-game season from January through May. But Trotz’s point is still valid.
"I think the growth of Brock is just kind of realized potential," said Cal Clutterbuck, a teammate since Nelson’s rookie season in 2013-14. "When he first came in, he would play the way he plays now for stretches of time and there would be stretches where he wasn’t playing as much. He would go a couple of games without scoring and his opportunity would be inconsistent. I think he’s been given steady opportunity."
Trotz’s arrival from the Capitals for the 2018-19 season coincided with captain and top-line center John Tavares’ departure, via free agency, for the Maple Leafs. Trotz elevated Nelson to a consistent role centering the second line. And Nelson has flourished under Trotz.
Part of that, surely, is the comfort of a long-term commitment from the Islanders as Nelson is in the second season of a six-year, $36 million deal with a no-trade clause.
"His growth is as a consistent pro, understanding his game and taking a bigger piece of the success," Trotz said. "Not only of his teammates but the team and the organization. He’s better on draws. He’s better on a lot of different things. But that component of him, accepting that role and feeling really good about it and owning it, that’s where the growth is for me."
As a team leader, Nelson feels the responsibility for the Islanders to be more consistent offensively. The Islanders had been held to one or fewer goals in four of their last five games entering Saturday.
"You’re always looking to get more," Nelson said. "Trying to score, helping the team produce in different ways."
While Nelson’s role on the second line and as a key, two-way center has been constant, his linemates have not. Beauvillier and Josh Bailey have frequently been on his wings, but so has newly-acquired Kyle Palmieri. Michael Dal Colle has had opportunities as well to play with Nelson.
Nelson professes no preference.
"You just got out and play," Nelson said. "Barry makes those calls. It’s a benefit for us that we’ve got a lot of guys that can move up and down. Everybody knows how to adapt and adjust with each guy. It doesn’t matter who you’re out there with. You just go and try and produce and, up and down the lineup, we have guys that do that."