Brock Nelson did not have a very good 2017-18 season. To be fair, last season was a bit of a mess all the way around for the Islanders, but there were still a bunch of players who contributed offensively above their expectations. Nelson, who finished with 19 goals and 35 points in 82 games, was not one of them.
The 30th overall pick in the 2010 draft has had his ups and downs with the Islanders, but has never really seemed to recapture the promise he showed during the team’s 101 point season in 2014-15. His developmental stagnation culminated in a rocky season under Doug Weight in which, if you read social media, fans basically had their cars in drive waiting to take the Minnesota native to the airport.
Over the summer, fan expectation was at an all-time low, and new management was brought in declaring “evaluation year.” Nelson signed a one-year contract with the Islanders for $4.25 million, avoiding arbitration, making him an impending unrestricted free agent at the end of the current season.
Fast forward a few months and the Islanders are in first place, Nelson is producing as a second-line center behind All-Star Mathew Barzal, and his game (at least) feels different than the player we have all been watching over the last couple of years. To find out for sure, we’re going to look at a few different elements of Nelson’s 5-on-5 game: production, shot rates, usage, and micro-stats. Let’s dive in:
It’s pretty clear from this perspective that Nelson has shown improvement. He already has more 5v5 goals in 2018-19 (14) than he did in 2017-18 (12) in 300 less minutes. A big reason for that is due to the fact that he is shooting 18.9%, which is well above his career average. He’s getting shots on net slightly more per 60 minutes, which may result in shooting percentage regression to come.
What’s interesting is the areas of which he is scoring, which we can see in the above visualization by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey). All of the large purple triangles in the middle of the ice indicate wrist-shot goals, and there’s a big variety of them. The above chart also shows how Nelson’s shot quality has improved, as his individual expected goals has gone up to 0.79 per hour, compared to 0.63 per hour in 2017-18. So, while it’s true that Nelson is only shooting slightly more, his shots are from quality areas of the ice.
Ultimately, we see how this reflects in Nelson’s Game Score. Game Score, created by Dom Luszczyszyn, measures single game productivity using a variety of metrics. Nelson’s 5v5 Game Score per hour is up to 2.07, compared to 1.12 in 17-18. The biggest reason for this is Nelson’s conversion rates, but he’s also putting himself in a better position to succeed to score (and assist) on more goals.
One of the best way we can measure Nelson’s shot rates are relativity. We can do this year-over-year team-relative for the individual player, and we can do this relative to the team graphically for this season. First, let’s show how Nelson is performing this season.
In the above chart, we can see Nelson almost isolated in the top left quadrant. The diagonal line running across the chart indicates the expected high danger chance relative % to the expected overalls shot attempt relative %. Nelson’s spot is interesting precisely because he’s a bit of an outlier on the chart – his name is not very close to the line. To explain, we can call back to the earlier portion of this analysis. Nelson’s shot quality, relative to his overall shot attempts, is quite good. His high danger chance relative (+1.61%) is much greater than his overall shot attempts relative (-2.48%).
His newfound attention to quality is a tangible improvement over last year, where Nelson finished at -4.42% scoring chances relative to team (-0.79% this season), and -4.61% high danger chances relative to team (+1.61% this season). Those are marked improvements that are significant to call out at this point in the season.
It’s, however, equally fair to call out that Nelson’s overall attempt share continues to lag behind team average. It’s one of the weakest parts of his game, and his 46.29% raw attempt share should raise some concern.
Nelson is certainly in a more advantageous spot this season, forming a quality second line alongside Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. That wasn’t so much the case last season, where Nelson’s most common linemates were Andrew Ladd and Tanner Fritz. We know that the relationship with linemates as far more important than the one with opponents (by a ratio of 5 to 1, per Micah Blake McCurdy), so Nelson’s situation this year is contextually more beneficial.
Still, he’s earned the trust of Barry Trotz and his staff as his time on ice is up two minutes at 5v5 over last season. He’s also up 40 seconds in power play time over last season and 17 seconds in penalty kill time. A large reason for this has to be called out as a consequence of John Tavares walking from the Islanders in free agency. But, there is something to be said about Nelson playing his way into the role. In fact, in his last five games, Nelson has not played less than 17 minutes, a marker he hit just 12 times last season.
Before we go into this, major shoutout to Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) for his amazing work in tracking all of these metrics, as well as CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) for his visualization, which you’ll see below.
The importance of zone exits and zone entries cannot be understated. Possession of the puck in both of these scenarios allow for cleaner movement through the neutral zone and more shot attempts in the offensive zone, respectively. Similarly, shot contributions help show a view of individualized impact on how often a player is taking shots or directly influencing a teammate to take a shot.
The above chart shows Brock Nelson’s year-over-year performance in all three of the described areas above. In the shot contribution area, we can see better percentile performance in 2017-18. Some of that could be attributed to the team’s mantra of shot quality over shot quantity. Even still, while Nelson is very clearly a “shooter,” as his shots/60 outweigh his shot assists/60, he is only slightly above average in terms of the amount of shots he’s taking per hour. Perhaps in-zone play remains an area of improvement for Nelson, especially as he will ultimately need to mitigate a likely regression of shooting percentage in the future.
The entry and exit metrics tell an entirely different story. Nelson’s entry rates are well above last season and league average — his carry-in rate is up to 63% this year versus 54.5% last season. He’s also entering with the puck more, which is a descriptor of the team’s neutral zone offense running through him when he is on the ice.
Similarly, Nelson’s success rate on exists is quite high, and show a ridiculously marked improvement over last season. He’s also exiting the defensive zone with the puck more, which is the foundation of how the Islanders give themselves the best chance of offensive success.
This has been a big transformation for Nelson, as he has become quite an adept player through the neutral zone. This is a very welcome happening for a team that vastly needed another option in the post-John Tavares era.
This was a lot of words, but there are a lot of different facets to breaking down a single player’s game. As the community continues to advance with more data, there are more angles to take with these analyses than ever before — and what we went over today is only some of them.
Still, there are some clear areas where Nelson has shown tangible, impressive improvement over 2017-18: his shot quality chances have led to improvements in relative metrics on high danger chances and scoring chances, his exit and entry metrics are well beyond what we saw from him last season, which has led to his overall production improving practically across the board. All of this has led to Barry Trotz trusting Nelson more, which we can see given his ice time levels.
At the end of the day, Nelson has done nothing but exceed expectations this season. For a team that has had multiple pleasant surprises, the transformation of Brock Nelson should not be one that flies under the radar.
All data for this article from MoneyPuck.com, Corsica, Natural Stat Trick, and Corey Sznajder’s Micro-Stats Project