Fewer than two years ago, debate raged on within the Maple Leafs fan and media community about which of Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott were most likely to become quality NHL players. It’s crazy to think of how much that conversation has shifted since them; Dermott has blossomed into someone knocking loudly on the top end’s door, while Nielsen, well, his time in the Leafs organization ended on Tuesday night, as the team traded him to the Calgary Flames in exchange for left winger Morgan Klimchuk.
Nielsen’s career arc is a tricky one. The Red Deer, Alberta Native started playing high-level minor hockey later into his youth than most, meaning that his first proper WHL season didn’t come until his draft year. That season, he scored 24 points in 59 games, showing physicality and size on the surface with the ability to help out a powerplay with his booming slapshot. Toronto took him with a third-round pick in 2015, and it appeared to pay early dividends, as he blossomed into an 18-goal, point per game defenceman with Lethbridge.
His rookie AHL season came a year later, and that got people even more excited. With Toronto still wielding a powerplay setup that relied on point shots, and without a lot of heavy slappers to work with, Nielsen feasted early, raking in all sorts of special teams points en route to a 39 point rookie year. That combination of size and early production is a big reason why draft models have always seen him favourably:
But as time progressed, the rest of Nielsen’s toolbox didn’t. He still lacked strong skating ability; be it speed, acceleration, or agility. He made poor defensive reads, his passing ability wasn’t anywhere near as good as his playmaking ability, and he was very temperamental on the ice.
Sometimes, this would all mix together; Nielsen was no stranger to taking penalties or starting fights after getting burned by a forward, coughing up a puck, or falling behind on a rush. He still managed 26 points in his Age 21 season, but also took a whopping 143 penalty minutes and was just one of a few Marlies who struggled to drive goal differential – it became very evident that, on a team with lots of strong defensive options, he was becoming a liability. Scratches became regular, to the point where he played just eight games in the playoffs – largely in very sheltered situations.
This year, it’s been even harder for Nielsen to get minutes, drawing into just 8 of 18 games and playing only about 13 minutes a night in them. Paired largely with Jordan Subban, with some sparing time spent paired with Frank Corrado, Vincent LoVerde, or used as a seventh floater, Nielsen posted no goals, three assists, twelve penalty minutes, no drawn penalties, and a 54.7% Corsi-For in that span (all advanced numbers via the Marlies Analytics Portal).
The Marlies coaching staff did not put Nielsen in many high-leverage situations this year. His 70% offensive zone start ratio was second among regular defencemen, and when he would start in the defensive zone, there seemed to be at least somewhat of an effort to put him with one of their more trusted defenders, like LoVerde or Calle Rosen. Nielsen did not appear to be a big help to his most frequent partner; Subban’s shot attempt differential was over 10% higher away from Nielsen, despite tougher zone starts.
While Nielsen has his moments of promise, he still has a ton of work to do in order to shore up his game. His ties to Alberta and his physical game are probably of interest to the Flames organization, and it certainly helps that Stockton is a team that could both use some more young defencemen and seems to give them rope to score. Especially with Oliver Kylington up with the big club, there may be powerplay room for Nielsen immediately. He’ll also get to play with Eddie Shore Award winner Matt Taormina (himself a bit of an offensive wizard at this level) and former Marlies teammate Rinat Valiev.
On the other side of things, the Maple Leafs receive Morgan Klimchuk, a former first-round pick of the Flames. Selected by the Flames in 2013 after a point-per-game season with the Regina Pats, Klimchuk spent two additional years in junior before joining the Stockton Heat full time in 2015/16.
After scoring just 9 points in his rookie season, Klimchuk followed things up with back to back 40+ point years in 2016/17 and 2017/18. This year, he has 8 points in 16; good for a 76 game pace of 38, so a bit behind is usual totals, but not enough to totally fret. What’s worth noting is that Klimchuk, who has shot at about 13-14% over his last two seasons, is at just 8.3% this year; I haven’t seen enough of him to know whether that’s bad luck, long-winded regression, or a shot location thing, but I wonder if that played a part in why Calgary decided to cut ties, and/or why Toronto decided to buy now.
Klimchuk was rarely used by Stockton in powerplay situations, and somewhat frequently on the penalty kill. Klimchuk is considered a solid defensive forward, strong forechecker, and a relatively decent skater. I’d imagine that his immediate role would be on Toronto’s fourth line, replacing either Griffen Molino or pulling Rich Clune back out of the every-day lineup.
As far as value goes, this was about as good as the team was going to get for Nielsen at this point. As much as I’ve been rooting for him as a person and as fun as the positive flashes have been, there were a lot of red flags in his game from the start, and the fact that they never seemed close to being resolved while countless others in the organization made big strides was alarming. Even without knowing what we know today, there was sufficient evidence that selling high would have been a good idea two years ago, where some over-excited pundits and analysts were considering him Toronto’s best prospect outside of the Marner/Matthews/Nylander.
Instead, Toronto gets a player that’s young but probably not ever going to be a serious NHLer, who went from being a first round pick to clearing waivers just a few short months ago. From a hockey perspective, at the very least, they’ve improved their AHL forward depth and gained a different prospect to try to work with. He’s also able to help out immediately, whereas Nielsen had become the Marlies’ eighth defenceman, not likely to get back into the lineup full time until Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin make their expected trip to the World Juniors late next month.
Overall, this isn’t a world-shattering move, but it seems reasonable across the board. Toronto improves an area they needed to improve, Calgary gets to try to help a local kid regain his glory, and Nielsen gets a new lease on his hockey life.
For Faceoff Circle Subscribers, Nielsen’s WOWY’s with Toronto defencemen this year:---
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