26 November 2013, 18:19

VOR's NHL: Frans Nielsen inside the NYI tailspin

By David Kerans

PHILADELPHIA (VOR)— Losing streaks are a risk of doing business in the NHL.

The league is very tough and very deep. You don't face many easy opponents, and the schedule gives you few breathing spaces in which to reset team tactics and psychologically reset when you are reeling from some bad results. If injuries and shaky goaltending insert themselves along the way, a losing streak can gather momentum and suck the wind out of a team.

D corps under strain

Two weeks ago in this forum we warned that NYI would be in a precarious position as long as puckhandling defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky remained out of the lineup. Their D corps is not imposing, and their forwards as a group have not distinguished themselves in terms of holding possession in the enemy end (nor have they done so for many years, in fact). NYI's rank in 5-on-5 Corsi events against (number of shooting attempts conceded while playing 5-on-5) attests to the strain this combination puts on their goaltending: opponents average 58 shooting attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play vs. NYI, placing them 22nd in that category (NJ is the stingiest in the league, at 42). More interesting, the Isles are demonstrable subpar at shutting down onrushing enemy forwards: opponents average about 0.7 shot attempts when carrying the puck over the blueline vs. NYI, well above the league average of 0.56.

Sure enough, NYI has struggled to stay close in games of late, let alone pick up points. They came to Philadelphia Saturday night having lost seven of their last nine, and shorn of last year’s top goalie Evgeni Nabokov through a groin injury.

In Philadelphia, NYI took another couple of painful blows to the body. After a scoreless first period, the first line and top D pairing lost their shape in their own end during the first shift of the second, and PHI put home the first goal of the game. Within a few minutes the lead ballooned to three, on a wrister from distance and an emphatic PP one-timer off a rebound by PHI ace Claude Giroux. 3-0.

Three goals down is a huge hill to climb, but the Isles almost made it back. They scored two, and had PHI on the ropes for most of the first half of the third period.

But it was not to be. The nail in the coffin came late, when PHI’s powerful Czech forward Jakub Voracek sped into the LW corner to double-team and dispossess Isles C Frans Nielsen, then send the puck out to the slot for the 4-2 score. Nielsen was stranded against two PHI forwards because NYI defenseman Andrew MacDonald was unable to reach the duel on the boards, presumably from exhaustion—D Thomas Hickey went down with a leg injury in the first period from blocking a shot, which forced NYI coach Jack Capuano to make do with just five D men. It cost them late.

In the gloom

Losing eight games out of ten in this November stretch is a big jolt to the entire NYI organization. The club had a similar spell in November three years ago, picking up only one point in an 11 game span then. Unlike three seasons ago, however, the team entered this year with high hopes, on the heels of earning a playoff spot and taking PIT to OT in Game 6 before bowing out.

Worse, the Isles don’t appear to have worked out a plan to recover. Post-game comments boiled down to basic laments:

“There were breakdowns” -- star center forward John Tavares

“It's frustrating. It's really frustrating” – first line winger Kyle Okposo.

The frustration caught up with Nielsen quite visibly late in the 3rd period. Down 4-2 with just a few minutes left, he lost a battle along the left wing boards in the PHI end and saw the Flyers clear the zone. He rapped the boards with his stick when going off for a change, and he looked as depressed as any Islander in the dressing room after the game. “You can't make mistakes in this league. The other teams are too good, they'll make you pay. We know we have a good team, we have good players. We just have to stick together, and we have to find a way.”

Out of the gloom

The Isles may indeed find a way. The team has gathered itself for long stretches of play above .500 over each of the last several seasons, and the return of Visnovsky and Nabokov could easily spark them. Recent acquisition Thomas Vanek is working productively with superstar Tavares, and there is no reason NYI cannot improve on its dreadful PK performance. We would not be surprised to see a resurgence as early as mid-December.

Out of Denmark

One of NYI’s brighter spots this year has been veteran center Frans Nielsen. His comfort on the puck, maneuverability, speed, and passing skills are apparent. Additionally, he is conscientious about play off the puck in all zones, and has therefore earned Capuano’s trust for ice time in all situations. He has delivered 10 goals so far this year (tied for the team lead with Tavares) to go along with 12 assists. His skating is smooth, and he is elusive enough to avoid dangerous hits, so we see no reason he can’t continue to produce at a good clip for many more years. It doesn't hurt that he is superlative in penalty shootouts. If we were to offer one caveat, it would be our suspicion that Nielsen is overly self-critical (a problem coaches around the world welcome).

shootout

Nielsen's devastating move to the backhand burns goalies at an extraordinary rate. This victim is Jonas Gustavsson of Detroit. Photo:  © Al Bello, AFP. 

We had a brief chance to speak with Frans Saturday, and asked him few questions about his journey to the NHL.

Download audio file

Kerans: You were a young boy in 1992 when Denmark won the European Football Championship. There must have been a lot of heroes on that team, but you became a hockey player. Did you ever want to become a football player?

Nielsen: No, I never played soccer, actually. I was probably one of the only guys {who didn’t}.

Kerans: How did you get into hockey? Was it family, or was

Nielsen: Yeah, it was my dad.

Kerans: Is there a big team in Herning?

Nielsen: Yeah. {the Herning Blue Fox, in Denmark’s top league}

Kerans: When did you first get out of Denmark and play?

Nielsen: I was 16 my last year in Denmark.

Kerans: Was it to Sweden?

Nielsen: Yeah, I went to Sweden.

Kerans: I know the language is almost the same, but were there no problems on the ice, it just immediately went alright?

Nielsen: Well, it took probably six to eight months to figure out the language, but right now I feel it’s the same {meaning apparently to say that his English is fluent-DK}

Kerans: When was it that you understood you could play professionally? Maybe when you’re 17 or 18, playing in Sweden?

Nielsen: Well, I played pro right away, as a 17 year-old.

vs. VAN

Frans nets a late tying goal vs. VAN earlier this season. Photo: © Bruce Bennett, AFP

Kerans: How did the NHL find you? Do you know who found you?

Nielsen: Anders Kallur.

Kerans: Anders Kallur found you? He was a famous player for the Islanders. So he got to you, and the Islanders drafted you. Did you know the Islanders were going to draft you?

Nielsen: No, I just met with him in my draft year.

1st star

Frans taking 1st star honors after a game in 2012 Photo: © Al Bello, AFP

Kerans: When Kallur meets you, does he talk to you personally, to size you up as a person? Or did he just stay away from you and talk to the coaches? Did he know you?

Nielsen: Yeah, I met with him a couple of times.

Kerans: About the Danish national team now. In European football, say if you play with Manchester United or Liverpool, they have to let you go some times to play internationally. For Denmark, it’s not so easy to qualify for the Olympics or the World Championships. But the Islanders can’t let you go {to play in qualifying tournaments – DK}, right, you have to be here?

Nielsen: Yeah, that’s right.

Kerans: Are you going to play for Denmark in the World Championships if you have a chance? I know you hope to be in the playoffs, but presumably you would be with Denmark in the World Championships?

Nielsen: Yeah, if the body feels okay, yeah. But that’s a long time from now.

Frans DK

Nielsen in action for Denmark (in 2006). Photo: © Joe Klamar, AFP

Kerans: Denmark doesn’t have defensemen in the National Hockey League.

Nielsen: Yeah, they do. Two.

Kerans: Okay, I’m hoping there will be some more. There’s a lot of big guys in Denmark, and I’m hoping we’ll see some more NHL players. I want to wish you the best of luck.

Nielsen: Thanks.

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