The Analysis: A deep look at Ty Nelson’s game
Right-shot defensemen have always been a hot commodity for NHL clubs and that’s especially true when it comes to high draft capital. With the sport trending faster and faster, defensemen that move the puck with speed and efficiency have never been more valuable at the NHL level.
Where those two worlds collide is where Ty Nelson enters this year’s draft class as one of the top talents available on the blue line.
Nelson, No. 24 in FCHockey’s Midterm ranking for the 2022 draft, has long been considered one of the top talents in Ontario among his age group, so what are the individual attributes that make him tick?
Here is your look into one of the 2022 draft’s top puck-moving talents.
When I say that Nelson has long been considered one of the top talents coming out of Ontario in this age group, I mean it. He’s been on the radar of scouts as a top talent long before this year. Nelson skated in the GTHL with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens for two seasons, establishing himself as the league’s top offensive defenseman by the end of his second year by leading all defensemen in points with 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) in 33 games in 2019-20. By season’s end, Nelson had established himself as a dominant AAA defenseman while also getting an opportunity to perform on the international stage with an appearance for Canada at the Youth Olympic Games — where he earned a bronze medal with the club.
Following his time playing AAA hockey for the Jr. Canadiens, Nelson was selected first overall by the North Bay Battalion in the 2020 OHL Priority Selection. With the 2020-21 season being wiped out due to COVID-19, this current season is acting as Nelson’s rookie campaign in the OHL.
He’s wasted no time in establishing himself as North Bay’s top defenseman. Logging over 24 minutes of action most nights, Nelson is heavily leaned on by the Battalion’s coaching staff, playing in all situations on the top defensive pair, top power play unit, and also seeing significant penalty killing time. To this point in the season, Nelson leads all draft eligible OHL defensemen with 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) in 39 games.
Nelson Skill Set
Nelson’s set of tools makes him very difficult to not notice throughout the duration of a 60 minute hockey game. When he is on top of his game, Nelson brings a dynamic presence to every shift he takes, leveraging top-end mobility and skill to make him one of this classes best puck rushers.
Like many young, offensive-leaning defensemen, Nelson does show occasional lapses in his decision-making and defensive zone play. But in a league that’s becoming dominated by quick and creative defensemen along the lines of Cale Makar and Adam Fox, what Nelson does best when he’s on the ice is worth close examination by teams in the early stages of the draft.
I’ve already mentioned a few times what is readily apparent in every game he has played this season: Nelson is one of the OHL’s top pure puck-moving talents.
He checks the boxes for nearly every attribute you look for in an elite puck mover, which should make it no mystery as to why he shoulders such a heavy load when it comes to North Bay’s transition game. His speed, agility, creativity, and vision with the puck on his stick allow him to lead the rush both in even-strength and man-advantage situations, and his ability to effectively move the puck out through the neutral zone routinely contributes positive to his team’s possession game.
In the clip above, Nelson (No. 24, green) displays the key attributes that make him such an effective puck-mover. He is a gifted, fluid skater who is able to shift gears quickly to burst into open pockets of ice and use fluid crossovers to build speed with the puck on his stick. Nelson constantly keeps his head up while carrying the puck and often shows very good vision by identifying open lanes to skate the puck through the neutral zone. In the above clip, you can also see a glimpse into how Nelson is able to use head and shoulder fakes in combination with puck control to beat defenders in transition, as he’s able to get opposing checkers to plant their feet early in order to open more space for him to skate into.
Identifying lanes to move the puck through and manipulating opposing checkers to open that space is one of Nelson’s greatest gifts. In addition to being a gifted skater, he is also an accurate and efficient passer. Nelson is capable of sending his forwards through the neutral zone with tape-to-tape passes, as shown in the clip above, while also being capable of making difficult but accurate two-line passes to create quick-strike offense.
His tendency to use subtle head and shoulder fakes to beat defenders and open space in transition also applies to his passing game. In the clip below, you can see how he gets the opposing checker to commit to the outside passing lane by faking a pass to the right boards. Once the opposing center shifts his weight towards the boards, Nelson sends a crisp pass through the now-open center lane of the neutral zone to send his teammates into the offensive zone for a clean shot on goal.
It’s easy to see how Nelson’s blend of mobility, transitional smarts, and skill can lead to a dynamic quick-strike offensive game when combined on the ice. He is no stranger to jumping into the play on the rush to generate scoring opportunities, whether it be from challenging opposing defenses with his speed game or by playing off the give-and-go with his teammates.
Nelson is constantly looking to push the pace of play when the puck is on his stick, his raw mobility and speed when combined with his skill allows him to put pressure on opposing defenses while attacking in rush situations. He is a player with naturally dynamic qualities, and it should be no surprise that he has tailored his game more towards the offensive side of the puck. His ability in that arena exceeds just his prowess as a transition attacker.
It’s readily apparent in the clips above that Nelson is a player that loves to jump into the attack and generate offense whenever the opportunity presents itself. His ability to push the pace of play and manipulate space lends itself very well to attacking opposing defensemen in 1-on-1 situations.
Nelson is capable of making flashy plays with the puck to create scoring chances on quick strike opportunities, and when attacking off the rush is able to generate chances for both himself and his teammates. He does an excellent job of pushing opposing defenses deep into their own zone in order to create passing lanes and space for his teammates with low-to-high plays. You can see in the clips below how Nelson is able to push defenses low into the offensive zone and make plays from below the goal line to set up scoring opportunities.
HIs offensive prowess also extends to periods of prolonged offensive zone possession, whether that be in even strength or power play situations. Nelson often shows himself more than capable of quarterbacking and commanding his team’s offensive game when he’s on the ice, displaying strong playmaking vision and puck distribution skills from the offensive blue line.
He is able to make crisp passes through the seam in the offensive zone to find teammates in high-danger areas of the offensive zone, whether that be for open looks in the high slot or at the back post for easy tap-ins. In addition to strong playmaking acumen, Nelson also does a good job of picking moments to step down from the point to make himself available to teammates as a shooting option.
Nelson is constantly surveying the offensive zone looking to generate threats on goal, and that extends to his play when the puck is not his stick. Some of the top offensive threats in the game understand how to create offensive threats even when playing away from the puck, and that’s a growing trait in Nelson’s game that could make him a meaningful offensive contributor at the next level.
When I think of Nelson on the offensive side of the puck, I primarily think of his acumen as a creator and playmaker when the puck is on his stick, but that does not mean he is not a scoring threat. When he is on the ice, the defenseman tends to look to filter pucks to high-danger areas and is a high-volume generator of shot attempts. When Nelson has an open shooting lane in the offensive zone, he is often inclined to put the puck on net, looking to shoot to score, find a deflection from a teammate, or generate a scramble at the goal mouth — all of which generate scoring opportunities for his team.
For a smaller player, Nelson is able to get a good amount of weight and power behind his point shot utilizing a strong shooting technique that allows him get good torque on his stick to generate power quickly. Nelson’s ability to shoot with power and score from distance can also be seen in his wrist shot, a tool that he often uses to get shots off in a hurry to shoot through traffic.
Nelson is capable of shooting to score, but the value of defensemen that are simply able to generate shots on goal by getting shots through from the point can not be understated when it comes to generating high-danger scoring opportunities. Defensemen like Brian Rafalski in the 2000’s were able to rack up assists by getting a large volume of shots towards goal to look for bounces or deflections, and I see some similarities to that style of play in how Nelson approaches the game from the offensive blue line.
Like many young, offensive-driven defenseman, Nelson does show shortcomings when it comes to his defensive game.
There are instances where he takes himself out of plays under moments of duress, which can be seen in the clip above. Rather than relying on body and stick positioning to make plays, far too often Nelson gets caught trying to make desperation plays with his body to breakup plays and more often than not he gets burned in those situations.
In order to succeed at higher levels of play, Nelson is going to need to become more consistent in his positioning in his own zone. Learning to stay on his feet and breakup plays with stickwork is how a defenseman who is smaller in stature, such as he, is able to defend effectively outside of junior. It’s improvement in stickwork that is likely going to be the biggest hurdle in success for Nelson.
Though defending is not his forte, he has shown instances of strong defensive play and will simply need to bring his best in that arena on a more consistent basis. Nelson’s four-way mobility, in theory, should make him a natural at defending the rush and maintaining his gaps, and though he does inconsistencies in his 1-on-1 defending at times, he is capable of denying zone entries with his gap control.
Hovering at around the five-foot-10 mark does pose challenges for Nelson at higher levels as well, as he does fall victim to larger and stronger opponents in battles for positioning more often than not. His saving grace in this regard is his high motor on the ice. Nelson is a very hard competitor who looks to put his best foot forward when it comes to board and puck battles, which does mitigate his size deficiency to some degree when he’s able to outwork larger opponents.
Overall, Nelson has plenty of work to do to defend at the pro level, but many of his issues in that arena are ones that I believe are coachable and will take time and experience to overcome.
Throughout the duration of this deep dive, we’ve seen plenty of examples of Nelson effectively transitioning his team from zone to zone with good awareness and vision, however it is not always sunshine and roses when it comes to his decision-making with the puck. Though Nelson more often than not is able to make plays with the puck, his tendency to always be pushing the pace of play does bite him from time to time.
Nelson is always looking to make a play when the puck is on his stick, but he can get himself into trouble with ill-advised passes or attempting to beat checks in dangerous areas on the ice.
These types of plays look gorgeous when they work out, but disastrous when they don’t.
When the margin for error gets slimmer and slimmer at higher levels of play, throwing the puck away in the middle of the ice and turning the puck over in your own end are more likely to come back to bite and is exactly the kind of thing that drive NHL coaches nuts. Nelson is clearly a talented and confident player with the puck on his stick and coaching the creativity out of his game would be a detriment to his effectiveness on the ice, however, he will need to learn to pick his moments to flash his high-end skill at more appropriate times to truly make it as a pro hockey player.
Throughout this deep dive, I’ve laid out the defining factors of Nelson’s game that I believe make him a top talent on the blue line for this year’s draft. As the game trends faster and faster and a higher premium gets placed on players that can effectively transition pucks out of your own end, I believe a defenseman like Nelson fits into the mold of where this sport is headed.
Sure, as a sub-six-foot offensive defenseman, Nelson falls into the same pitfalls that other players in his archetype fall into with inconsistent defensive play and decisions with the puck.
I’m not here to argue Nelson is a perfect player. I am, however, arguing that he is a supremely talented young hockey player that is worth a swing based on what he does best. In my view, you would be hard-pressed to find defensemen in this draft class with a higher ceiling in their raw puck-moving skill set. Nelson is a dynamic, mobile, and skilled puck rushing defenseman who can generate offense for his club with one rush up the ice, and with the right coaching and patience I think could follow a similar trajectory to the NHL as Colorado’s Samuel Girard.
If Nelson is able to hammer out his inconsistencies in his own zone, add additional strength to his frame, and any lingering lapses in his decision making, I believe he has the talent to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL and is worth a look in the top-25 for the 2022 NHL Draft.