The pipeline between the University of North Dakota and the National Hockey League seems to be stocked year after year. At the end of each hockey season in Grand Forks, countless players make their way to the professional ranks with some immediately becoming difference makers at the pro level.
Names like Oshie, Parise, Toews and now Boeser have dominated the professional hockey lexicon whenever the University of North Dakota is brought up. Oshie is a recent Stanley Cup winner and has one of the greatest American hockey moments ever in the 2014 Olympic Games. Parise and Toews have become two of the NHL’s most notable names over the course of the last decade. Finally, Boeser has emerged as a rising star for the Vancouver Canucks since leaving UND in 2017.
However, there is one name many do not think of when pondering great UND hockey alumni currently making waves in the NHL. It’s certainly not purposeful because it is no doubt challenging to compete with the names mentioned above. Yet, this name and the player bearing it is one of the NHL’s quietest, most deadly stars.
That name (and player) is Brock Nelson.
Nelson, a Warroad, Minnesota, native came to Grand Forks in 2010 after a historic prep career. He had an astounding 154 points combined in his junior and senior seasons with the Warriors. Nelson continued to make an impact under then head coach Dave Hakstol, Nelson netted 36 goals and dished out 32 assists in two seasons at UND. In turn, Nelson led UND to an NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2011.
The school has long been heralded for its ability to produce high-level professionals. For Nelson, playing under coach Hakstol and assistants Cary Eades and Dane Jackson was key in his preparation for the next level.
“That coaching staff had been around the game for so long. So they ran the program like a professional team, coming out of high school it feels like its being run like an NHL team. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for those guys because they let you know how it’s going to work, you got to come in there and work your hardest otherwise they have guys that want to go there and their getting top recruits every year,” said Nelson of UND and their ability to produce NHL prospects. “I just think the resources, knowing that everyone has a dream of making the NHL and that’s just another step going there and trying to develop yourself. Get bigger, faster, stronger and become a better player and I think the mentorship from all three of the coaches that were there when I was there, you can take something away from all of them. That was very key in me developing and I think it was the best decision going there.”
Thanks to UND’s long-standing reputation with scouts, Nelson was a touted prospect upon leaving Grand Forks in 2012. He had been drafted 30th overall by the New York Islanders in 2010. After leaving UND, Nelson finished the 2011-12 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders AHL affiliate. He played in just four games to finish the season and returned to Bridgeport the following season, piling up 52 total points in 2012-13.
“It’s pretty well known that North Dakota has a pretty good pipeline in producing players. Obviously, the staff there has been tremendous. When I was there I had Hak and the facility there is second to none. Guys ask what that facility is like and when you go in there as an 18-year-old, you’re kind of in shock with how nice it is. It’s nicer than a lot of NHL rinks and you’re going in there trying to get to that next level. You have every opportunity and all the resources you need to get to the next level,” Nelson said of UND’s reputation within the professional hockey community. “I think it’s just a great mix of people there running the program, the history there speaks for itself and then now, you see Toews, Oshie, Parise, guys all across the league that have gone on and now have unbelievable NHL careers and still have a lot of years ahead of them. I think everything kind of speaks for itself when you take a look at the guys and the number of guys they have produced.”
While Brock Nelson notes other notable UND alumni, he has to be in that conversation as well. After his stellar 2012-13 season with Bridgeport, Nelson was called up to the Islanders before the 2013-14 campaign. He played in 72 games as a rookie and scored 26 total points. Nelson then put together three straight seasons of scoring 40 points or more. Within that stretch, he played no less than 81 games each year for the Islanders.
Nelson scored just 35 points last season en route to a disappointing season overall for New York. The Islanders made the playoffs in two of Nelson’s first four seasons, but 2017-18 saw New York win just 35 games and miss the postseason. It was no secret that changes needed to be made and fans were getting restless with a lack of postseason success. To date, the Islanders have not played in a Stanley Cup since 1983-84. Before that season, the franchise won four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Needless to say, proper changes were made. New York hired Barry Trotz to be the team’s next head coach in the offseason. Trotz had just won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the Washington Capitals. He is also the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and the second-longest tenured coach in American professional sports. Safe to say, the résumé speaks for itself and Nelson agrees.
“Obviously, his résumé speaks for itself. He has been around a long time, won a lot of games and coming right off the Cup win, he knows what it takes and his message right from day one was simple and clear and you knew what you needed to get done. If you didn’t do it, he was going to find a way to get someone else to do it or make sure you knew you were doing something wrong,” Nelson said of Trotz and the new staff. “They’ve been a great voice behind the bench for us and in the locker room. They’re extremely detailed each and every day, you have to come in ready to work every day, know what you’re supposed to be doing and that just kind of translates to the games. When you get out there, you just kind of play and you know everyone is going to do their jobs.”
The product on the ice with Trotz behind the bench was possibly the best Islanders team in nearly three decades. They finished the regular season with 48 wins, the most since 1984. Not only that, they were fifth in the NHL in total points and first in goals allowed (191) thanks to some stingy goaltending and a much improved defensive front. For Nelson, he believes tidying up the defense was one of the keys to success.
“I don’t know if you can pinpoint any certain difference, but I think that the little areas that we tidied up. Defensively, for sure, last year we had a bit of a tough time keeping the puck out of our net and this year we’ve been able to limit the number of goals against. So, obviously, good goaltending every night from both Rob [Lehner] and Thomas [Greiss] gave us a chance to win, they’ve made some big saves, timely saves to keep us in games and win games for us,” said Nelson on the team’s improvements from last year to this year. “That’s always helpful for us as forwards and defensemen, knowing that you got a guy behind you that is going to make the save for you and back you up if there is a breakdown. I think just the commitment to the little details like that, everybody has bought in extremely well and believes in this group that maybe doesn’t get that same belief on the outside. We’re just going out there trying to have fun and win games and we’ve done a good job of that.”
Not only that, Nelson had a banner year individually for the Islanders. He scored 25 goals in the regular season, the second highest mark of his young career. Nelson also had 28 assists by season’s end, a new career high. His solid individual play notched him a staggering plus-20 rating over the course of the regular season. For reference, the league average is minus-0.5.
“It was a good step for me, but I think with all the turnover we had from staff and players, there was a lot of opportunity for different guys up and down the lineup. I wanted to come in and be one of those guys that took a little bigger role and wanted to help the team a little bit more and knew there was more to give,” Nelson said. “Right from day one, Barry pushed me, the coaching staff did a great job of letting everybody know what they saw in you so that they believed in you to go out there and get the job done. Just trying to make the most of the opportunity that we have here as a group and a lot of guys have stepped up and had career years.”
The season was not over quite yet for New York though. In their first-round playoff series, they were met with one of the NHL’s bluebloods, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins had made three consecutive Stanley Cup appearances coming into this year’s playoffs, winning two in a row before Barry Trotz and the Capitals took them down last season. Featuring one of the game’s best players in Sidney Crosby, Nelson, and the Islanders had their work cut out for them against a team with playoff pedigree. “Coming off two of three Cups, they won the back to back before Washington last year, so they know what it takes and they’ve made runs for the last few years now. A lot of firepower up front, a lot highly skilled guys, obviously Crosby is the top of the top,” said Nelson. “We went in with kind of a similar gameplan that we’ve had for most the year, we changed a couple of things here and there.”
What ensued was an impressive performance by the second-seeded Islanders. New York was able to sweep the Penguins in four games, outscoring Pittsburgh 14-6 in the series. Nelson scored three of New York’s 14 goals including a couple of crucial first period goals in games one and two to put the Islanders in front. While he shined as an individual throughout the series, Nelson chalks the series win up to stellar goaltending from Robin Lehner.
“When you’re playing a team best of seven, you’re seeing them every night. For us, it was just worrying about our gameplan, playing tight defense to try and limit those chances on the other side. We were able to do that and again, we had great goaltending. Some of the nights there were a couple of big saves that kept us ahead or kept us close,” he said. “It worked out, it might have looked like a sweep, but it didn’t feel like that because a lot of the games were tight. Obviously, in the playoffs, the atmosphere is amplified, but it was a good recipe for us and this is just the first step.”
New York’s season has since concluded as they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Though the players are hungry to be at the top of the NHL mountain, Nelson recognizes how much this fanbase wants to be back on top of the league too. New York has not won a Stanley Cup since 1983, their fourth straight at the time.
“The franchise, it’s been a while since they’ve won it all, but I think the history of them winning it all, the four in a row, you see those guys around here still. They’re heroes and legends and fans remember going to those games and watching those guys play and they can’t wait to see us do that. I think that’s the best part, to get to that point and join that group and get to that level,” Nelson said. “To be able to win it all is something special and it’s memories you will create with your teammates that you’ll never forget. Obviously, for the fanbase, they’re still talking about the 80s and how awesome it was and they still bring up good memories. I think that kind of drives you and pushes you as a player.”
He may not be the first name you think of when you ponder UND alumni in the NHL. For Brock Nelson, that is okay and he is quick to note that. However, it is hard to deny how Nelson has ascended the NHL ladder in just his sixth season in the league. With a New York Islanders roster and coaching staff poised for deep playoff runs in the future, there may be another North Dakota alumni hoisting a Stanley Cup sometime soon. That scenario will play itself out no doubt, but one thing is for sure, Brock Nelson is becoming an NHL star.