There are few scarier ways to begin a scouting report than “fascinating”. It’s a one-word way of getting out of straight up saying “I like him, but…”, and tends to get attached to players who are a piece or two from truly realizing their potential. Players that you want to believe will find those pieces, but you can’t sell yourself convincingly that they’ll get there.

Andrew Nielsen is a fascinating prospect.

Age 20 (November 13, 1996) Birthplace Red Deer, Alberta
Pos Defence (LH) Drafted 2015 (Rd 3, Pick 65)
Vitals 6’3, 207lbs Acquired Via Draft

His story also counts as fascinating, though less in the codeword sense and more in actual curiosity. It took Nielsen until his Draft -1 year to even make it to AAA, partially because he wasn’t taking his own odds overly seriously and as such, didn’t condition himself to make the jump.

Once he began to take things seriously, though, it all came together quickly for him. A solid season in AAA led to a shot with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and a rookie season where he finished second among Lethbridge defencemen and 23rd among U19 WHL defencemen in points led many teams to think he was worth a chance.

The Leafs took it in the third round and were quickly rewarded for it. In his next year, Nielsen scored at nearly a point per game pace, finishing second in U20 point totals and 4th among all WHL defencemen in even strength points per game.

 AGE SEASON TEAM LEAGUE GP G A TP NHLe PIM
16  2012-13  Red Deer Elks Midget AA  SCAHL 34 8 17 25 124
17  2013-14  Red Deer Chiefs Midget AAA  AMHL 35 3 15 18 34
18  2014-15  Lethbridge Hurricanes  WHL 59 7 17 24 9.7 101
19  2015-16  Lethbridge Hurricanes  WHL 71 18 52 70 23.4 122
19  Toronto Marlies  AHL 5 0 2 2 15.4 0
20  2016-17  Toronto Marlies  AHL 74 14 25 39 20.3 82

Last year, Nielsen played his first full pro season, and turned a lot of heads by doing what he does best; filling the net. His 39 points placed him 14th among all defencemen in the AHL, trailing only Vince Dunn (St. Louis) and Kyle Wood (Arizona) as far as rookies go. He was a constant threat on the powerplay, and when the Marlies were struggling, he was one of the few things to get excited about, scoring 28 points in his first 38 games. That wasn’t a pace he was able to keep down the stretch, though; save for a brief re-emergence in late February/March, he saw a steep decline, scoring 15 in his final 47 including playoffs. To his credit, his defensive game seemed to improve in this period; errors were less obvious and it seemed like he had a better grasp of the system as time wore on.

That wasn’t a pace he was able to keep down the stretch, though; save for a brief re-emergence in late February/March, he saw a steep decline, scoring 15 in his final 47 including playoffs. To his credit, his defensive game seemed to improve in this period; errors were less obvious and it seemed like he had a better grasp of the system as time wore on.

pGPSn pGPSs Exp. Success % Exp. P/82 Exp. Value
8 (28/31) 6 (25/31) 75.0% (1/31) 42.9 (4/31) 32.2 (2/31)

The above numbers are products of the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), created by Canucks Army to project a prospect’s odds of becoming an NHL regular. For a run-down on what each of these stats mean, head back to the introduction.

It’s very rare that a 20-year-old rookie defenceman gets the chance to run a powerplay in the AHL, let alone thrive in that position and rack up points as a result. That was the case for Nielsen last year, and because of that, he finds himself in a spot with a small but quality group of players. A little less productive than Shea Weber, but ahead of Cody Franson, Keith Yandle, and TJ Brodie? That has to sound exciting to just about anyone. To do it while a few months younger than all of them? Even better.

Certainly, history is on his side, even if he’s in a relatively untravelled corner of it.

If you have a subscription to The Athletic, I highly recommend getting your qualitative takes from Justin Bourne’s article published four weeks ago. It was literally his job to dissect Nielsen’s game last year, so his opinion will be the most specific.

The core positives and negatives in his game should be obvious to anyone paying attention, all the same. His ability to work with the puck when it’s on his stick is top notch, be it an accurate pass or an absolute cannon of a shot taken from the point, which almost made Toronto’s four-forward powerplay units feel like five at many occasions last year. He’s capable of being physical, and he isn’t scared to drop the gloves.

At the same time, his skating technique still needs a lot of work; likely connected to not going all-in with his efforts to “make it” as a pre-junior player, and something that the Leafs will continue to work with him on while dealing with the hiccups as they come. His defensive hockey sense at times doesn’t do him too many favours; being eager to jump into the play and contribute is great, but if you combine his occasional over commitments to the lack of mobility to cancel them out, you’re often left with a disaster.

It’s almost fair to describe him as a “loud” player according to the eye test. We’re constantly told that the best defencemen are the ones you never notice, and in Nielsen’s case, he’s a fire truck with the lights on. His plays, positive or negative, are always noticeable, which is great from the entertainment product perspective of the game, but sometimes frustrating from the angle of building a reliable winner.

The Upcoming Year

I’d suspect that Nielsen’s usage will continue to trend in the same way as it did last year, with maybe a slight uptick in matchup quality and in ice time as the season progresses. Continuing to hone his offence will likely be seen as a priority, and he’ll remain the Marlies’ #1 defensive option on the powerplay and in close-trailing situations.

Beyond that, I’m not so sure. I’m sure Toronto would like to round out other elements in his game, but there are plenty of other young defencemen to attend to on the team as well who might get in the way of that.

Long-Term Outlook

As far as the blue line goes, Nielsen may be Toronto’s biggest boom-bust type in the organization. It’s clear that he’s one of the few “late bloomer” types that have a justification for what took them so long beyond an untrusting coach, and the threat that he shows whenever he has the puck on his stick within the blue line is undeniable.

If the mobility and decision-making don’t find a way to catch up, though, we might just be talking about an AAAA talent. The fact that he has a wealth of time to figure it out gives me optimism that he will, but I’m just going to preach that; patience. Rushing him will do him no good, but developing him just right may lead to a lethal, NHL-quality offensive defenceman.

To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.

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