The Red Wings ‘big splash’ this offseason came in the signing of 32-year-old unrestricted free agent Frans Nielsen. Once the Stamkos sweepstakes came to a close with much more of a whimper than a bang, Ken Holland and co. set out to find a suitable replacement for departing superstar Pavel Datsyuk. Of course, there is no suitable replacement for the magic man, but Nielsen’s two-way play is an attractive quality to a team that needs help defensively. Couple that with his nine years of experience and consistent (but average) point production and you’ve got a plug for that hole down the middle.
It might be a temporary plug, and not as good as the last plug, but it will do the job just fine.
Hailing from the small city of Herning, Denmark, Nielsen is the first Danish citizen to play in the NHL.
He was drafted by the New York Islanders 87th overall (third round) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft and played for the Mälmo Redhawks of the Swedish Elite League until he was called over the pond in 2006-07. He played in 15 games for the Islanders that season and recorded one goal and one assist. For the next two years, Nielsen split time between the Islanders and their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This is where his consistency had begun to show.
Nielsen played his first full season with the Islanders in 2008-09 and began improving his game with every new season. During the 2010-11 season, Nielsen led the league in shorthanded goals with seven, proving that his production wasn’t held to 5v5 or powerplay situations. Nielsen could be, and was, played in all situations on the ice. This kind of trust on a team is often rewarded, so Nielsen signed a four year, $11 million dollar contract with the Islanders in 2012-13. Since then, he’s broken the 50-point barrier twice and averaged a CF% of 50.5, which isn’t bad considering 9% more of his deployment is in the defensive zone vs the offensive zone.
To round out his NHL experience, Nielsen has participated in three Stanley Cup Playoffs, most recently contributing six points in 11 games in 2015-16 as the Islanders fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games. That would be the end of his tenure in Brooklyn, as this offseason Nielsen signed his big boy contract with the Red Wings, for six years at a total value of $31.5 million ($5.25 AAV).
Last Year’s Stats
In 2015-16, Nielsen had the second best offensive season of his career. His 52 points was good for third on the team behind (former first overall draft pick) John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. His twenty goals, though moderate, was good for fourth on the team. That being said, Nielsen shone through on advanced stats as one of three forwards on the team with a CF% of over 50.0. As mentioned earlier, with more starts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone, this means that Nielsen is moving the puck out of his own zone and driving offence in the other direction. With seven powerpoint goals and two shorthanded goals, the Islanders used Nielsen in all situations and it paid off for them.
One area Nielsen excels at is in the shootout. Armed with the “Danish Backhand of Judgement”, Nielsen scored his way to a 40% shootout percentage. His four shootout goals (out of ten attempts) was good for sixth in the league in shootout goals. This is the one area where Nielsen is an improvement on Datsyuk, as Datsyuk’s shootout percentage last season was a mere 28.6%.
In the playoffs, Nielsen’s even strength play did not live up to his regular season numbers. He netted one goal and one assist and posted a CF% of 46.5. Nielsen did, however, add two goals and two assists on the powerplay.
In terms of contract, Nielsen’s comparables are veterans David Backes (Boston Bruins), Loui Eriksson (Vancouver Canucks) and Milan Lucic (Edmonton Oilers), as well as former teammate Kyle Okposo (Buffalo Sabres). This contract is pretty normal for an aging two-way player (though Backes and Lucic are more physical). It’s not a terrible deal right now, but the NTC will hurt the Wings in the latter half of the deal. The good news is that statistically, Nielsen’s stats are more or less in line with these guys.
In terms of point production, Nielsen’s comparables are guys like Ryan Kesler (Anaheim Ducks), Derek Stepan (New York Rangers), and Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues). The Red Wings should feel good about this as Nielsen is more preferable than all of them, especially when it comes to cap hit of each, except for maybe Steen. He’s got the best stats when it comes to special teams, which, God knows, the Wings need help with and he leads the pack at 5v5.
Other comparables in the point department are youngsters Max Domi and Nathan MacKinnon who will continue to improve and vastly surpass Nielsen.
This Year’s Projection
Frans Nielsen will have a good season playing with Henrik Zetterberg on Detroit’s top line. In the last couple of seasons with the Islanders, he’s fought tooth and nail with Brock Nelson for a top-6 spot, but with Detroit, he’s the clear number one centre for now, as Dylan Larkin transitions to the middle and improves his two-way game.
As part of Team Europe in this year’s World Cup of Hockey, Nielsen has been incredible in his playmaking abilities and scoring chances. This will continue on Detroit’s top-6 with Zetterberg on one wing and Abdelkader on another. He’ll break the 25 goal mark and clear 50 points again. His two-way game will inspire his teammates, especially the young ones, on how to play a complete hockey game. He’ll see time on both the powerplay and the penalty kill, helping turn around a special teams unit that last season was, in a word, a failure.