Nielsen a key contributor in Hurricanes resurgence

By Glen Erickson
Andrew Nielsen - Lethbridge Hurricanes - 2015 NHL Combine

Photo: Lethbridge Hurricanes defenseman and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Andrew Nielsen was an NHL Combine invite before being chosen by the Leafs at the 2015 NHL Draft (courtesy of Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)



Does Andrew Nielsen have what it take to become a force this season on an ever-improving Lethbridge Hurricanes squad?

Suffice to say that most all of the tools seem to be in place.

Nielsen’s emergence, among others, bodes well in Lethbridge these days. He is a big, rangy defenseman with some edge and offensive skill. In fact, his play last season on a struggling team was plenty sufficient for the Toronto Maple Leafs to call his name at the 2015 NHL Draft. Hockey fans in southern Alberta are hoping Nielsen and will turn things around quickly.

“Last year was tough, only getting 20 wins,” Nielsen said, “especially coming from a midget team where we won a lot of games. Personal success was great. I did have good coaching and good players to help me with that.

“But this year in Lethbridge we’ve turned a page in the organization with some new coaches and players. It’s been kind of a culture change. It’s an awesome time to be a member of the Hurricanes and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

These are sentiments not heard coming out of Lethbridge with much frequency in recent years, but a feeling of urgency and high expectations has definitely begun to surface. One piece of the puzzle is general manager Peter Anholt, who moved into the role near the middle of the 2014-15 season. He recognizes what Nielsen brings to the mix.

“I think with Andrew, we knew there was some foundation for him to turn into a player,” Anholt said. “I think we knew he was a late developer. He played AAA midget at 17 and moved into major junior at 18.

“We knew something was there. He’s got a great shot. He’s always looking to make a play and that’s where he has taken off. He really took off in second half of the year. That’s when he showed he can quarterback a power play and be a key guy.”

A rough start

Nielsen confirmed with HF what Anholt alluded to. There was a time when the youngster wasn’t particularly sure where he might fit in the world of competitive hockey. It took him awhile to work things out and along the way he took it on the chin a couple of times during minor hockey. But for now, Nielsen is confident he has overcome those challenges and improved his outlook on the concepts of hard work and personal responsibility.

“I played in Red Deer through minor hockey, peewee with Optimist Chiefs and in bantam,” Nielsen said. “In bantam I played AA my first year. I was really hoping to make AAA the next year and didn’t.

“That was a big disappointment for me, kind of a setback. I didn’t take it so great, I actually felt like I got screwed over a little bit, but that’s just the way it goes. When I moved on to minor midget after that and it looked like it was going to be a big step. I wanted to make the Major Midget team the next year and didn’t end up making it.

“That one kind of stung because most of my buddies did make the team and they ended up going on to win the national championship.”

That 2013 win at the Telus Cup in Sault Ste. Marie was the second in a row for the Optimist Chiefs under Doug Quinn, during an Alberta Midget Hockey League run in central Alberta that Nielsen says has become known as the “Doug Dynasty”. Quinn, in fact, is Nielsen’s uncle.

“I made the AAA midget team the year after that championship and it kind of kick started things for me,” Nielsen said. “We went to Pacific championship, the regional final, and lost in game three in overtime (to the Okanagan Rockets). It was awesome to be a part of that experience.”

The long and short (and round) of it

“I was always one of the bigger guys,” Nielsen said. “Thru my atom and peewee stages I was always kind of a bigger guy, and then I kind of quit growing. Then I started really growing going into my midget year as a 15-year-old, at least a couple of inches.”

Today, at 6’3” and 208 pounds, Nielsen cuts a wide swatch among WHL defensemen. But there was a time, he admits, that his size, his weight, was rather a detriment.

“I was always a bit overweight and that was what held me back. I always felt I had skills, but I didn’t move as quickly as I had too. In midget, I got taller and lost some weight.”

In junior hockey, a player’s physical appearance is subject to close scrutiny. It is very common to hear scouts suggest that a taller player might have to add some weight, some muscle. They’ll say something along the lines of “he has to grow into his body.” For Nielsen, it was almost the opposite. He says he was too heavy. Today, he can more than adequately stand his ground in the WHL.

Now 18 years of age, Nielsen actually credits the setbacks, being cut from teams he felt he should have made, along with another late growth spurt as the reasons he has been able to progress and become a more mobile and rugged player. He had grown weary of being a good player that was left on the outside looking in.

“When I kind of felt I grew into my new body and just re-learned the coordination,” Nielsen said of his final year in midget hockey, “that’s when I felt a difference. As a bigger guy, I was always able to kind of physically dominate guys. But when I lost that 20 pounds or so, I couldn’t do that anymore, couldn’t manhandle guys anymore. I guess I was able to use my new found speed.”

His issues with his weight were news to Anholt, who admits that when he arrived in Lethbridge he wasn’t overly familiar with Nielsen’s background. He did share that he had gotten wind of Nielsen’s former “build” through overage Cory Millette. The Hurricanes acquired Millette from the Seattle Thunderbirds in May. Millette also had a stint with the Red Deer Rebels, where Anholt says the veteran forward had billeted with the Nielsen family.

“His (Cory’s) comment to me was that there was this pudgy little kid around the house,” Anholt laughed. “Cory was really pleasantly surprised how Andrew had turned into a player. It sounds like there was a time when perhaps Andrew wasn’t really committed. I didn’t know much about it until Cory kind of re-affirmed it.”

When HF spoke with Nielsen in Kelowna, he was without question well-spoken and enthusiastic. It would seem he has gained a measure of confidence since battling through some personal growing pains.

“I think you just have to keep looking ahead and notice the good things you are doing and see what the game gives you,” Nielsen said. “Being able to go out and play every day and continue to get better and not worry about what other people are saying, except for the people close to you like the coaching staff and family. You have to focus on yourself and grow as a player and a person. Finding things to use as motivation helped me to keep pushing on.”

Time to deliver

Nielsen, who is now 19, has parlayed his physical and emotional development into a prominent role with the Hurricanes, one he appreciates immensely. He suited up for 59 games last season, scoring seven times and adding 17 assists, while accumulating 101 penalty minutes. His presence and progress was enough to capture the attention of NHL scouts. The Toronto Maple Leafs selected Nielsen in the third round, 65th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft.

“It was an exciting day for me and my family,” Nielsen said. “I was kind of shocked I went as early as I did. I was just hanging out at home and I got the call from my agent. Then shortly after that, I got a call from Mr. (Mike) Babcock. That was a pretty awesome moment on an awesome day. “

Anholt believes the scouts got it right, suggesting there may have been a few suitors looking to add Nielsen to their respective roster of prospects.

“He was probably drafted on projection where a lot of teams would try to take him,” Anholt said. “A lot of teams were interested in taking him in that area and the Leafs stepped up.

“It’s not necessarily anything he’d already done. Rather, he has to keep showing that promise. I think he’s doing that. I think he has the ability to play in the NHL. I see him as a number four to seven guy in the NHL. But, it’s one thing to have promise and another to realize it.”

Nielsen credits a couple of WHL veterans for hanging in there with him last season, helping to keep him focused and motivated. In some ways, Mike Winther and Nick Walters could have just mailed it in last year as 20-year-olds with the hapless Hurricanes, but Nielsen suggests they were a godsend for him.

“It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really go into last season expecting to get drafted,” Nielsen said. “I would say it was kind of a surprise to be getting that attention from different teams throughout the year. I’d never experienced anything like that even coming out of minor hockey.

“I didn’t really know how to handle it very well, but I had some guys on the team that I was able to turn to. Nick and Mike have been through the draft process and they helped me to keep my head straight, helped guide me through the process.

“‘Wally’ had been there, coming over the year before and Mike came over at the (trade) deadline. They came into kind of a crummy situation after things maybe hadn’t turned out the way they wanted them to with their NHL teams. But they came to the rink everyday (in Lethbridge) with a good attitude and showed the younger guys how to act and portray ourselves professionally. They gave us access to the experiences they’d gone through and they were great guys to have around. They were there with us and they stuck through it.”

The WHL experience

As a youngster growing up in Red Deer, Nielsen spent some time on the Rebels bench as a stickboy. He watched the players and focused on some favorites. He says that Dion Phaneuf of the Maple Leafs stood out, a Rebels’ alumni and former member of the Calgary Flames.

“I was more of a Calgary Flames fan because of where I lived and who I liked,” Nielsen said when asked about his allegiance while growing up. “I’m sure a huge Leafs fan now. It doesn’t hurt that Dion is there. It couldn’t have worked out better. I want to work hard to show them they made a good pick.”

Part of the program for Nielsen will be adapting to more of a leadership role in Lethbridge. It’s only his second WHL season, but his draft status serves notice that expectations are high. He’s excited to tackle the rigors of the WHL’s 72-game schedule.

“Sure, it’s busy, but you have to love the game to be able to do it,” he said. “You know, it’s not for everybody. It’s a big time commitment and finding those things you have to do to keep healthy and to keep up with school, finding time to rest, and the proper time to work out.

“I think it all comes down to preparation, how much you sleep, what you’re putting into your body. That all translates to your play on the ice. And I’ll tell you what; everyone knows who is putting the time into their preparation.”

Through 20 games, Nielsen has scored seven times and added 15 assists, while compiling a +9 rating. He is clearly well on his way to establishing career highs. The Hurricanes have surprised many pundits out of the gate this season, posting 12 wins against 8 losses through November 16th.

“We kind of have a seven-man rotation,” Nielsen said when asked about his role on the blueline. “We’ve got our shut down guys and a few of us who can fit together as a second pair. It’s good to have as many guys as we do.”

The tough times last season resulted in some familiarity among the troops, some chemistry that has carried over to this season. With the likes of veteran forward Giorgio Estephan (BUF), Brayden Burke and team captain Tyler Wong, the Hurricanes can ice formidable specialty team units.

“I’m on the power play unit and there’s pretty good chemistry. We’re starting to find each other out there and build some good habits. It just comes with the more you’re together and the more mature we’re becoming. I think it gives us some advantages having a couple of guys who have gone to NHL camps. We’re clicking right now.”

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51