On Friday night, former-Toronto Marlies defenceman T.J. Brennan made his first homecoming visit of the season to Ricoh Coliseum, as a member of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Now, if you happen to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan and can’t remember Brennan, I don’t blame you. Allow me to jog your memory.
Across his Marlies tenure, which lasted from 2013-2016, Brennan put up totals of 72,16 (in 19 games), and 68 points respectively. In each year, he was selected to the All-Star Classic, while nabbing AHL First-Team All-Star honours in 2014.
And yet, despite scoring at a point-per-game pace in a league where offence is hard to come by, as a defenceman, the Leafs never gave him an extended NHL shot. Why was that?
I wondered that myself. Until I saw this:
Colin Greening strips former Marlies defenceman TJ Brennan and scores to tie the game for the Marlies. 2-2 late in the third. pic.twitter.com/ho6E9wCCzs
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) January 6, 2018
T.J. Brennan has a negative-14.1% Corsi Rel in 11 games this year with the Phantoms. Now I'm curious if this is just a horrific start or if he's always been a hollow point producer down there.
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) November 20, 2017
Then it dawned on me. No matter how many points Brennan put up, it would never change the fact that he’s always struggled in his own end. At the end of the day, it would be those struggles forever holding him back from an NHL future.
I bring up Brennan for a reason. As, mere feet away on the opposing bench, sat current Marlie Andrew Nielsen. Nielsen, mere moments ago, had just made a blunder of his own.
The similarities were striking, and they were right in front of my eyes.
Nielsen’s aforementioned blunder can be seen below.
Alex Krushelnyski scores for Lehigh Valley and makes it a 1-1 game. Took advantage of blocking Andrew Nielsen's shot and deked out Garret Sparks. pic.twitter.com/BGZbIB56hd
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) January 6, 2018
Under minimal pressure, he shoots the puck directly at Phantom’s forward Alex Krushelynski (killer name, btw). As Krushelynski blocks it, perhaps involuntarily, Nielsen struggles to race back and defend the ensuing breakaway, resulting in a goal.
So, while fellow 20-year-old defenceman Travis Dermott’s game has elevated this season, resulting in an NHL call-up, Nielsen’s has instead remained stagnant. Comparing the pair of 2015 draftees now, it’s shocking to think they were both considered to be Toronto’s blueline of the future.
Now, Dermott is in the NHL, while Nielsen is fighting to maintain a spot in a loaded Marlies top-six.
Offence has never been hard to come by for Nielsen.
As a 19-year-old rookie defenceman in the AHL last year, he put up a respectable 39 points. In fact, at the half-way mark of the season, he was producing at a point-per-game pace.
Remind you of anyone?
And yet, it’s 32 games into 2017-18 and Nielsen holds a mere 10 points to his name, with just a single goal to boot.
Like Brennan, defence has always been the factor holding Nielsen back. Shocking as it may be, defence seems like a pretty vital skill for a defenceman to master.
To be fair, defensive hiccups are unavoidable for all young players, particularly young defencemen. What is avoidable, however, is stagnation. I’m fine with a prospect struggling because failure is an important part of the developmental process.
It’s when that same prospect shows no signs of correcting those struggles that I begin to worry. So far, not only has Nielsen failed to improve his defensive game, it may have actually gotten worse.
Chris Didomenico spoils Garret Sparks' shutout bid and puts Belleville on the board, 3-1. Rough giveaway by Andrew Nielsen is the direct cause of this opportunity. pic.twitter.com/P6v8qtV3pL
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 31, 2017
What Does the Future Hold?
In the midst of fandom, it’s easy to forget that many of your team’s best prospects are still kids.
Nielsen is no different. In fact, when travelling in the United States, he isn’t even old enough to grab a post-game drink yet.
Personally, I’m rooting for Nielsen to pull out of this. How many of us haven’t experienced struggles, be them personal or professional, in our early 20’s? I certainly have.
While still raw, he does possess the necessary physical tools to become a useful player down the line. Those tools, when used correctly, lead to plays like this:
Alas, there exist only six spots on an NHL blueline, and the Leafs are seeing theirs begin to fill up.
Dermott is already there, with phenom Timothy Liljegren soon to follow. Add in regulars like Nikita Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Andreas Borgman, and that’s six already, excluding Connor Carrick and any future free agent signings.
As unfair as it may be, time is running out for Nielsen to become a regular Leaf. Halfway through his sophomore season, he finds himself at a crossroads.
Either harness his physical tools and join his Marlie teammates in the NHL, or risk becoming this generation’s T.J. Brennan. Nielsen’s fate rests solely in his own hands.
How he responds to this watershed moment could serve as the turning point of his professional career.