The Islanders’ need for a second center among their top six forwards, created when John Tavares bolted for his hometown Maple Leafs via free agency, might just be Brock Nelson’s job to lose.
“I think that Brock is the natural guy to go there,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He has the ability, he has the experience in the league, now it’s up to him to go up there.”
Nelson centered top-six wings Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle as the Islanders beat the Devils, 2-0, on Thursday night at Barclays Center after being in between Lee and Josh Bailey in Monday night’s 3-1 loss at Philadelphia. Nelson was scoreless with two shots in 21:10 of ice time on Thursday, including 6:40 on the power play.
Nelson, 26, has been a durable player in his five seasons with the Islanders, missing just a combined 12 games, but he’s never compiled eye-opening offensive statistics. He had 19 goals and 16 assists in 82 games last season after scoring at least 20 goals in the previous three seasons but never surpassing 45 points.
Mathew Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, is expected to assume Tavares’ spot on the top line. Casey Cizikas seems entrenched as the fourth-line center and newcomers Jan Kovar and Valtteri Filppula seem more suited to a third-line role. Anthony Beauvillier could slide into the middle but Trotz seems inclined to keep him on a line with Barzal.
Both Nelson, who agreed to a one-year, $4.25-million deal this offseason as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and Trotz believe there is more offense that can be coaxed out of him for a top-six role, which would be a requisite.
“I think that’s part of the opportunity that I want to take advantage of,” Nelson said. “That’s one of the areas I want to focus on.”
“He’s got the size, he’s got the skill set,” Trotz added. “I think he’s got a good hockey IQ. I don’t know Brock that well yet but I know he can be a real good player and being a good player is being able to play heavy minutes against good people in tough situations.”
Nelson also has the extra motivation of playing for a longer-term contract as he approaches unrestricted free agency.
“We both came to the agreement on one year but it doesn’t mean anything for the future,” said Nelson, drafted 30th overall by the Islanders in 2010. “This is the only place I’ve been, the only thing I’ve known. I’ve loved every minute I’ve been here. I want to win here.”
Notes & quotes: Goalie Thomas Greiss stopped all 25 shots he faced in two periods before being relieved by Christopher Gibson (11 saves) . . . The Islanders were 2-for-8 on the power play with Kieffer Bellows and Lee getting the goals. Eberle, Tanner Fritz and defenseman Devon Toews had assists . . .LW Andrew Ladd (tightness) remains day-to-day with no apparent timetable to resume skating after missing his fourth straight practice on Thursday. “We’re not going to put him back in until he’s close to 100 percent,” Trotz said.