Andrew Nielsen kicks off our prospect rankings for 2018, coming in at #20 overall. It’s hard to say that our rankings are likely to be read by Nielsen personally, but the fact that we’re putting him in this spot suggests he’s still got quite a long road to the NHL, if he’s able to make it there at all. A year ago, it might’ve seemed like the Leafs would’ve had to drastically improve their prospect cupboard to have 19 players ahead of Nielsen, but it was mostly a stalled year of development from Nielsen that led to him nearly missing the cut for the list.
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Unranked by 5 of our rankers (and peaking no higher than 16th), Nielsen dropped considerably in the eyes of our armchair scouts. The key factors that likely led to this demise include a disappointing campaign and the injections of six new players that cracked the list. Add in the fact it’s often tough to differentiate between players once you start trying to make the judgment that far down in the depth chart, and you see why a player like Nielsen falls to where he did.
Spoiler alert: No player dropped as far as he did (while still staying in the rankings) as Nielsen.
Nielsen is one of the few Western Canadians in the Leafs system, hailing from Red Deer, Alberta. A 2015 third round pick out of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, the 21-year old has become a mainstay on the Marlies roster over the past two seasons. Weighing in at 207 pounds while standing 6’3″, he fills the prototypical archetype of “big body dman.”
Also, I once ran into him in a washroom in Cobourg at the RBC Cup the day before a Marlies playoff game. I didn’t know where else to include that, but Jon wanted it in there as a fun fact, so here we are.
Boy, would AHL time on ice data ever be nice? One of these years…
Anecdotally, Nielsen’s minutes dropped as he was pushed out of the lineup, but he was still picking up minutes on the team’s top power play unit. Look no further to his 2015-16 season to see what he’s capable offensively.
However, one big thing you’ll notice is he takes a heck of a lot of penalties for a defenceman in 2018. Only 35 of those penalty minutes are attached to fighting majors from this past season. He didn’t have a complete disaster of a season by any means, but it wasn’t exactly a huge leap forward, either.
Nielsen found himself in the lineup for just eight playoff games, eventually being usurped by good friend Travis Dermott who made his return from the NHL level. By the end of the year Nielsen was pegged in at 7th on the Marlies’ depth chart, which doesn’t exactly scream that he’ll be making his NHL debut anytime soon.
From those who I talked to that followed the team closely, they described the year as a “big step back”. Nielsen’s production on the power play simply wasn’t there, as he put up just two goals and six assists, in comparison to four and sixteen the year prior.
Has his progression been as expected?
Depends who you ask. Nielsen’s 2015-16 season was about as good as you can ask from a junior defenceman, and in 2016-17, 39 points was an impressive total from a rookie AHLer on the backend.
If you’re comparing Nielsen to his initial draft projections, he’s probably about where expected: a player who’s likely to play the bulk of his career in the NHL. But when we’ve seen flashes that he could be something more, it’s a little disheartening to see that Nielsen might not ever crack the Leafs roster as a regular.
Previous years’ ranking
In his first year eligible (2015), Nielsen went unranked.
Ryan Fancey wrote about him when Nielsen came in at #15 in 2016, which was easily the heaviest class we’ve seen in the history of this site, considering it included all of Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and a little fella called Auston Matthews. Fancey wrote:
If there’s a Leafs prospect from the 2015 draft who’s driven up expectations and changed minds the most, it’s probably Andrew Nielsen. Look no further than the fact he’s comfortably cracked our top twenty list for the first time, despite Toronto’s prospect depth increasing even further with some notable additions this summer.
Last year, Evan Presement profiled Nielsen who’d bumped his way all the way to #6, although there’s a catch: eight players ahead of him on the 2016 list ended up with regular NHL jobs, if not full-time, were playing by the end of the season. Evan’s take:
Nielsen takes a lot of, frankly, undisciplined penalties. A lot of the people I talked to who watch Nielsen closely agree that as he matures, his PIMs should decrease, which is a good sign.
(They increased this past season, for what it’s worth.)
From that same profile, former Marlies video coach Justin Bourne had this to say:
“His skating has improved, particularly his pivots going back on pucks. Think of Nielsen as Bruno Caboclo. When the Raptors drafted him, they knew he was a ways away from the NBA, but they saw a crazy high ceiling, ala Giannis Antetonkounmpo. If he can fill out his lanky frame, improve those feet and find an edge, he could be a great NHLer. It’s up to him to put in the work and take those strides now.”
As Seen on TV (Highlights)
If you’re interested, here’s four different Andrew Nielsen clips/ highlight reels. Goals! Hits! Fights! Hockey!
Within the organization, Nielsen actually stands at least as tell as every other defenceman (tied with Ron Hainsey), except for Martin Marincin. His height naturally draws comparisons to say… Colton Parayko, but it’s unlikely that Nielsen will follow the progression curve of one of the league’s best d-men.
To me, he honestly kind of reminds me of Dion Phaneuf, although if he does crack the NHL, I wouldn’t bet the house on him putting up 99 points over his first two seasons.
With respect to what is often described as a weak defensive pipeline, Andrew Nielsen’s got quite the road ahead if he wants to jump up the Leafs’ depth chart.
Currently, on the left side of the defence, the Leafs are running Gardiner-Rielly-Dermott at the NHL level, with Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman both having NHL experience on the Marlies. Martin Marincin’s full-time NHL career is probably a moot point in this organization, so at best, he’s slotting in as the Leafs’ sixth best option there, but with the addition of Rasmus Sandin in this year’s draft, Nielsen’s fighting an uphill battle.
He’s still got two years on his entry-level deal, but I’d say there’s a feeling that the Leafs will probably be able to forecast his future pretty well based on his performance in 2018-19.
While make-or-break is an overused cliche in hockey (and sports) as a whole, let’s call this upcoming season Andrew Nielsen’s show-or-go year. Nielsen’s value may in fact be as high as it’ll ever be again. The challenge for him this upcoming year is to show that he’s got value to the Maple Leafs organization, or it may just be time for him to experience a change of scenery.