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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: Andrew Nielsen works his way to No. 22

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A big leap forward puts Nielsen on the map this year.

The photo is from a preseason game last September 22nd, if you're wondering.
The photo is from a preseason game last September 22nd, if you're wondering.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

It's still very early yet, but the Leafs' 2015 draft is looking pretty fine a year out.  Our next pick on this year's T25U25 was drafted 65th overall last year, and his subsequent work has made the Leafs look smart for picking him.  Left-shooting Alberta defender Andrew Nielsen rises from universally unranked in 2015 to be this year's #22.

The Results

Nielsen finished with 50 points (out of a total 350), coming in well ahead of Carl Grundstrom and well behind #21.  He ranked as high as #13 (from Birky), while going unranked entirely by five of our panelists.  No other player with multiple non-rankings had a vote as high as Birky's 13 for Nielsen.

Here's Birky on why:

Yes, Nielsen's skating needs work. That's an especially concerning statement when we're talking about a defenseman in 2016; it's just the nature of the direction the league has taken.  But the one thing teams are always on the lookout for kids with size & skill. Nielsen appears to have both.


If you look at the other top scoring defenseman throughout the CHL, Nielsen and Travis Sanheim are the only two over 6'2. Of course, that doesn't guarantee anything. He's going to need to improve his skating as a pro. But I tend to weigh production heavily, and Nielsen certainly produced last season.

Commander-in-Chief Scott Wheeler offers some caution, though:

I had Nielsen slightly lower than the consensus in large part because I’m still really apprehensive about his skating. There is no denying he’s a decent handler for his height with a heavy, accurate shot that makes him a scoring threat, but when he jumped to the Marlies late in the season he really struggled in his own zone and was frequently exposed.

His man-on-man defending still needs some work too. He can’t rely strictly on his physicality, because when he does he either gets danced or he takes too many penalties by getting caught out of position.

He took huge steps forward this season, and surprised me with his production, but there’s still a lot of kinks he has to work out if he wants to be considered a top prospect.

Voter

Scott Wheeler 67 Sound Birky Arvind Elseldo Gunnar Carlsson Achariya JP Nikota Species Steve Burtch Katya Knappe Acting The Fulemin 50 Mission Cap Chris H.
Rank 23 18 13 24 - 17 - - - 25 21 23 - 20

The Player

At age 19, Nielsen is a big bopper with a mean streak: he's listed at 6'3" and 207 lbs., and he's cleared 100 PIMs in each of his last two WHL seasons for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.  He hit 122 this past year, which meant he tied for the PIM lead among defencemen.  The first two sentences on his EP profile contain the words "brutish", "big-bodied", "size", "physical maturity", and "imposing."  Andrew Nielsen will mess up your shit.

When initially picked, though, Leafs fans worried he'd be a penalty-prone pylon, ineffective at one end of the ice and regularly turnstiled on the other.  As stated above, Nielsen was one of the totally unranked in last season's T25U25, because he looked like a very large young man who didn't produce much and wasn't a great skater.  And that's the fun part: this year, Nielsen a) started to get better at skating and b) started producing quite a lot.

Andy N. finished the season third in WHL defenceman scoring—18G-52A-70P in 71GP put him three points back of Flyers blue-chipper Ivan Provorov (though Provorov did it in nine fewer games.)  For Nielsen, who was putting up less than half a point a game the year before, that's a spectacular boost.  Even in the WHL, going point-per-game on D is a pretty impressive feat.

Slicing and dicing Nielsen's numbers does lead to a bit of hedging; he benefited considerably from powerplay time, and if you take the more statistically conservative measure of even-strength primary points, he drops to twelfth among defencemen—still good, but a little less wonderful.  Nielsen got a lot of secondary assists and a lot of powerplay points, so we ought to be careful before we crown him as a star offensive defenceman.

The fact that we even have to raise this as a caveat, though, is a testament to how far Nielsen has come.  Noting that many of his points are secondary assists is only happening because Nielsen has developed a skating and offensive game where previously one wasn't evident.  If you'd like to see some Nielsen highlights, this video eventually has several, mostly showing off his impressive shot.  (The first half of the video includes an interview with Nielsen and extensive footage of a Camaro, for reasons still at large.  But beggars can't be choosers with WHL highlights.)

In addition to his newfound offence, Nielsen also looks solid from a two-way perspective, ranking 13th in even-strength GF% among defenders who played at least ten games last year—and first among defenders for Lethbridge.  The team did better when Nielsen was bashing up and down the ice.  The scouting is positive on Nielsen's two-way game, his ability to shut down opposing offences and his knack for taking space away, at least in junior.  He's certainly got the wingspan to hope he can develop a similar capacity in pro hockey.

In the end, Nielsen has shown a blooming offensive dimension to add to his smash-‘em-up and shut-‘em-down game.  His penalty count is a bit worrisome—mean streaks are good, terrible penalty differentials from obstruction calls are not—and anytime a not-so-fast big guy does well in junior, there's a concern he'll struggle against adult men.  Scott has warned as such, and everyone agrees there's work to be done for our boy Andrew.  But size never goes out of style for NHL d-men, and Nielsen has shown himself to be a stud defender at the WHL level.

Nielsen could conceivably return to Lethbridge for another season, but he seems well-positioned to join the Marlies' defence this fall, after a short audition with them this spring.  It's still a long way from the WHL to the NHL.  But Nielsen has taken a big step on that path this year.