In his rookie season, Brock Nelson scored 14 times. He followed that up with a 20-goal sophomore campaign. Now in his third year with the New York Islanders, Nelson is on pace for the first 30-goal season of his career.
It’s not as if Nelson’s scoring the majority of his goals by banging home loose pucks or being in the right spot at the right time, either. Instead, Nelson, 24, has looked every bit the type of sniper the Islanders had hoped he would become when they drafted him in the first round, 30th overall, in 2010. His goals have come on pinpoint-accurate wrist shots that have made more than a few netminders snap their heads as they watch the puck fly by.
Nelson is modest when he talks about his shooting ability and isn’t one to call his own shot a thing of beauty and he has a much more simple, hockey-speak explanation for his shooting success.
“The shots are finding lanes and going in,” Nelson said. “You go in streaks and hopefully the better ones last longer than the not-so-good ones — just try and stick with it and try to fire as many pucks as you can. Obviously, you can’t ever get enough pucks on net, so hopefully the more you get, the more you get lucky bounces.”
Well, it’s hard to call his blast against the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, snipe on the Blue Jackets’ Anton Forsberg or rocket past the Ducks’ Frederik Andersen the result of Nelson getting the bounces. Sure, Nelson’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is far and away the highest of his young career, but teammates and those around the Islanders attribute his scoring success to his shot. If Nelson won’t boast about himself, his teammates aren’t afraid to.
“He’s got such a wicked release,” Islanders winger Kyle Okposo, who trained with Nelson in the summer, said. “There are times in the past couple years that he wouldn’t get it off as quickly as he would have liked — maybe it got blocked or a defenseman got his stick on it. This year he seems to be pulling it and shooting it around guys and it’s really tough for the goalies to pick up.”
There’s enough proof of that in Nelson’s personal highlight reel from this season, and he mentioned changing angles and deceptiveness as something he’s learned how to do more often. And Nelson has made a habit of unleashing his wicked shot from the right wing, a spot he says gives him a better angle to try to pick his spots on a goaltender.
“The crazy thing is Brock can beat goalies clean from long distance,” Islanders blueliner Thomas Hickey, Nelson’s former roommate, said. “He’s really good at using a defenseman in a one-on-one situation to disguise his shot and the goalies have a tough time picking it up.”
As valuable as Nelson’s goal scoring has been to the Islanders, though, it’s just as impressive how he’s been able to contribute in a magnitude of roles in New York. Nelson has chipped in on the penalty kill and power play while skating down the middle and on the wing. He’s played alongside Okposo and John Tavares, but he’s also manned the second-line with Mikhail Grabovski and Ryan Strome.
“Maybe people don’t understand how important it is to have a guy that can light it up, do so well, playing on the wing with the top guys and then can be thrown back on center where he’s the main part of one of your lines,” Hickey said. “He goes and plays at a different position and he’s just as good, if not better. That’s the most important thing, his versatility.”
The scariest thing of all for opponents, though, is that his teammates don’t seem to believe a 30-goal season is the ceiling on Nelson. Okposo said Nelson has “tremendous upside” and a lot of raw talent, and Hickey agreed.
“He can skate, he shoot the puck, he can handle it, he’s good in tight spaces and he’s big,” Hickey said of Nelson. “We’ve seen pieces of that, but right now it’s starting to all come together and he’s a really dangerous player when all those skills are on display.”