When news broke that Pavel Datsyuk was going to leave the Detroit Red Wings and head home to Russia, many (including myself) thought the team would be stuck with the last year of his contract, leaving $7.5 million in dead cap space on the books. Luckily, general manager Ken Holland was able to move the contract with relative ease, sending it along with the 16th-overall pick to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the 20th and 53rd overall selections in the 2016 draft and Joe Vitale.
With the extra cap space, Holland pursued a number of free agents on the market, in an attempt to fill the void left by Datsyuk’s departure. The team was happy to sign forward Frans Nielsen to a six-year deal worth $31.5 million (average annual value of $5.25 million) on July 1. Considering his strong two-way play, he appeared a perfect fit for the Red Wings. While the 32-year-old Dane took a while to acclimate to his new team, his game has turned a corner in Detroit.
A Tale of Two Seasons
Nielsen started off the season at a relatively slow pace, though he maintained the strong defensive play the Wings were so keen on when they pursued him during the summer. Head coach Jeff Blashill used Nielsen on both the power play (02:38 PP TOI/GP) and the penalty kill (01:48 SH TOI/GP), and he was third among all Red Wings forwards in time on ice per game, averaging 17:19. However, it did not translate into offensive production, as Nielsen registered just eight points through the first 20 games of the season.
While his ice time has remained roughly the same since the end of November, he has become more noticeable and more offensive since. Over the past 27 games, Nielsen has collected 18 points, scoring at a respectable 0.67 P/GP pace. While his selection as the Red Wings’ representative for this year’s NHL All-Star Game remains a bit questionable, there is little doubt that the Danish center has picked up his play over the course of the season.
Finding the Right Fit
Part of the reason for Nielsen’s success is due to him finding regularity within the lineup. Though he started the season with Henrik Zetterberg on his left wing, the two had little chemistry skating together. He then bounced around the lineup, skating on various lines alongside Dylan Larkin, Justin Abdelkader and Tomas Tatar.
Oddly enough, Nielsen’s only three-point game this season occurred on Nov. 25 against the New Jersey Devils, where he skated between Abdelkader and Luke Glendening. He then scored eight goals over the the next eight games, even when Abdelkader went down with a sprained MCL injury.
While Blashill made a few tweaks over the next couple of weeks, he eventually paired Nielsen with Thomas Vanek during a Dec. 17 game against the Anaheim Ducks, and the two developed some real chemistry together. Once Andreas Athanasiou joined the line, it really took off, as the trio has a combined 25 points over the past nine games.
Vanek left Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers with a lower-body injury, which is a tough blow for the Wings. With Tatar taking his spot on the line, it’s tough to say whether Nielsen’s offense will take a hit. It would be a shame to see him slow down after finally finding his grove with the Red Wings.