He endured the worst season of his career, but there are reasons to be encouraged he can recover his footing.
The 36-year-old Dane is coming off a dismal 2019-20, in which he recorded four goals and five assists in 60 games. He didn’t score a goal until after the Christmas break, recording one Dec. 28 at Florida. He scored twice Jan. 7 vs. Montreal — remember, of the Wings’ 17 victories this season, four were against the Canadiens — and then didn’t score again until Feb. 29 at Ottawa.
Nielsen spent most of the season bouncing between the third line and fourth lines and seeing sporadic power-play duty. He averaged 13:41 minutes of ice time.
Former general manager Ken Holland signed Nielsen to a six-year, $31.5 million contract in the summer of 2016 in an effort to ameliorate the loss of Pavel Datsyuk. Nielsen didn’t have Datsyuk’s dazzling skills with the puck, but he was a fluid skater who’d put up two 20-goal, 50-point seasons in the three years prior.
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His first season with the Wings went well — Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Andreas Athanasiou especially clicked as a line — and Nielsen finished 2016-17 with 17 goals and 24 assists in 79 games, putting him fourth on the team in scoring behind Henrik Zetterberg (68 points in 82 games), Gustav Nyquist (48 in 76) and Tomas Tatar (46 in 82).
Nielsen’s numbers dropped in 2017-18, to 33 points in 79 games, but it was a tough season for lot of Wings — Zetterberg’s numbers, for example, dropped to 56 points in 82 games. In 2018-19, Nielsen had 35 points in 72 games.
Nielsen’s role on the team has diminished, an organic development as younger players have pushed for a bigger footprint. He didn’t play with scoring wingers this season, drawing the likes of Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Adam Erne and Luke Glendening. Nielsen used to be a regular on the power play but that changed this season, and he spent more time killing penalties. That played into numbers that stand out against his career output: He’d never before tallied below double digits in assists as a full-timer.
There are two years left on Nielsen’s contract. It is doubtful GM Steve Yzerman will buy him out because it’d be prohibitive — it would cost around $3.4 million against the salary cap in 2020-21 and roughly $4.4 million in 2021-22. Nielsen is still a good skater and passer, and is a dependable penalty killer.
He can still be of value to the Wings, and if he can earn some confidence with a good 2020-21, then there’s a chance Yzerman can unload him at the 2022 trade deadline, similarly to how veteran Mike Green was dealt at the 2020 deadline.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Detroit Red Wings will be published in October by Triumph Books. To preorder, go to Amazon.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings need Frans Nielsen to rebound in the worst way