While the New York Islanders continue to prep for the playoffs, it’s an anniversary for one of the team’s biggest names.
Today marks ten years that Brock Nelson has been a part of the organization. And for many that have followed him, including myself, his Isles tenure has never lacked intrigue.
Nelson, now 28, came to the franchise as a baby-faced teenager out of Warroad, Minnesota. The Islanders drafted him 30th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft with the hopes he can become a top-two center for the future behind the face of the franchise and the player they drafted number-one overall a year earlier, John Tavares.
Being from a hockey hotbed — Warroad had produced Stanley Cup winner T.J. Oshie, and the Christian’s (USA Hockey royalty) for whom Nelson calls family — there were expectations for Nelson.
“Coming from Warroad, a small town, there’s a lot of people that have sacrificed [for you],” Nelson told to the Islanders’ team website as he reminisced about his draft day experience. “You get free ice and everybody up there, they live and die by the game. Obviously, your family puts in a lot of time. You start to realize that as you get older and when you have kids, how hard everything is to make things for your kids and to provide them opportunities to succeed. Just to have your family there with you is pretty surreal together and share that moment after everything they’ve done to help you get there.”
Nelson would go on to play two seasons at the University of North Dakota before going pro. There, he starred for the Fighting Sioux and was named All-WCHA Third Team in 2011-12 and WCHA All-Tournament Team in 2012. In his one full season in the AHL — 2012-13 — Nelson showed top-six potential with 52 points in 66 games.
Nelson produced enough to get the call to the Isles. He made his NHL debut in game six of the team’s first round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders would lose the game and the series that evening, but that was the start for Nelson.
When the next season began, Nelson was expected to make the varsity; he did. With 14 goals and 26 points in 72 games, Nelson made his presence felt. But he also proved he had 20-25 goal potential and looked like he was living up to his draft status.
Nelson notched the first of his five 20-goal seasons in 2014-15 as the Isles surprised in the East. Another part of his game though began to creep in, and it would become a hot button over the next several seasons — inconsistency.
Starting that year, despite a career-best 42 points, Nelson would go games and sometimes weeks without producing points. This trend started to allow fans to question Nelson’s drive and effort. That theory followed into the next year even when Nelson tallied his most goals, 26.
There was a moment late in that ‘15-‘16 season where former head coach Jack Capuano singled out Nelson — and two others — and said they needed to “pick their shit up!” It was another hint that Nelson wasn’t playing up to the level he needed to be.
The Islanders would win their first playoff series in 23 years that spring before falling in five games in the semifinals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nelson played in all 11 games, yet had only one goal to show for.
Heading into 2016-17, Nelson was being tabbed as the club’s number-two center behind Tavares following Frans Nielsen’s departure in unrestricted free agency in July. This was going to be a huge opportunity for the then 25-year-old, and while he again recorded another 40-plus point season, Nelson never elevated to that next level. What’s worse, along with the inconsistency, Nelson had gained the reputation of being a “soft” player. All this even with his 6’3, 200-plus pound frame.
A lot of fans had soured on Nelson at this point and believed maybe a change of scenery was needed. He was never dealt and went into a contract year, 2017-18, needing a huge year. Again, those old habits came back and Nelson had his worst statistical season to date, 19 goals and 35 points.
Everything pointed to Nelson finally leaving the organization.
Enter Barry Trotz.
When Trotz became head coach in the summer of 2018, he made it a point to have Nelson be the team’s full-time number-two center. He challenged Nelson to elevate his game too in the wake of John Tavares leaving the organization to sign with his hometown Leafs.
All that offseason, and even when he signed a one-year qualifying offer, the question remained whether Nelson would find that next gear.
It was evident early on last season, Nelson had finally got the message. He surprised everyone, getting off to a great start and solidified himself as one of the Isles’ most efficient forwards.
“The first conversation was I thought he was a better player than just from afar,” Trotz told Newsday early on last year. “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.”
A career-high 53 points and an excellent performance in the playoffs got a Nelson a brand new six-year, $6 million contract.
Nelson has once again progressed this past season before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown the shocker season in March. He was four goals shy of cracking 30 and just five shy of the 60-point plateau, which would have made it the best season of his career.
Now a father of two, Nelson has come a long way in his ten years with the Islanders. He’s now one of their cornerstones who can hopefully bring a Stanley Cup back to Long Island.
His path to get to this point and the hurdles he overcame has made his years with the franchise anything but boring.