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Photo Credit: Rob Wilton

“Those are the guys you root for”: Tristen Nielsen is making the most of his new opportunities in the AHL

It’s been a week to remember for 21-year-old, BC-born, Tristen Nielsen.

The smiley centre/winger has been grinding away in the AHL this season with the hope of getting an opportunity to prove himself.

After going through healthy scratches, battling an injury, and grinding away on the fourth line — Nielsen’s name was pencilled into the top-six this past week.

With injuries to Phil Di Giuseppe, Justin Bailey, Justin Dowling and the call-up of Nic Petan — a door was opened for Nielsen to slide into the top-six for the first time this year.

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The Canucks played back-to-back games against the Manitoba Moose on Tuesday and Wednesday — Nielsen made the most of his opportunity and potted a hat trick on Wednesday night in a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win.

“I’m pretty thrilled,” said Nielsen in the postgame availability on Wednesday night. “I don’t think I’m going to sleep anytime soon.”

On top of getting a chance in the top-six, Nielsen was given a shot to play on the first power play unit with some very talented AHL players.

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“I was just trying to not mess up,” said Nielsen. “I know Rempal and Dries take it very seriously. It’s nice because I know they’ll put me in my place and they’ll tell me what I’m doing wrong and I can learn from it. And obviously when you get a second or third opportunity you’ve got to make it count.”

Nielsen has an interesting skill set that can bring a lot to an AHL roster. His speed is clearly the best part of his game but he is finding his scoring touch as of late as he has four goals in his last three games. There’s clearly offensive skill in his game that is beginning to be unlocked at the AHL level and it took a bit of learning the league before showcasing a scoring touch.

“You have to earn everything in this league,” said Nielsen. “The first half of the year, I didn’t realize that. I thought I was just going to step in with the same conference that I had in junior and just seeing some of the guys in this league and their work ethic really put me in my place.”

The Canucks’ scouting staff deserves credit for the two WHL players that they mined out of the undrafted graduating class. Both Nielsen and Chase Wouters have been great this year and in Wouters’ case — he’s shown that there could be NHL potential from the type of player that he is. Niesen still has a lot to prove at the AHL level before the NHL comes into the conversation. The good part about Nielsen’s hot week is that he showed head coach Trent Cull that when given more opportunities, he raised his own game to exceed expectations.

On top of getting first power play unit time and being in the top-six, Nielsen snuck his way into some time on the penalty kill on Tuesday night. It’s not a part of his everyday game but showing the ability to kill penalties will help him in his pro career and the speed that he possesses makes a shorthanded goal just a puck fumble away.

“Anything to get a little bit more ice,” said Nielsen when asked about his thoughts of continuing to kill penalties.

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The added ice time has come from a coach who saw something special in the 21-year-old and wants to see him use his unique talent to thrive in the AHL.

“He’s a guy who has savvy,” said Cull. “We’ve always talked about it as he’s got a uniqueness to his game. He reads the play very well and anticipates. He’s a guy who, we’ve talked about defence and what his responsibilities are and he’s been working on that and he’s conscious of it. He’s a guy who’s got a knack around the net so we’re very happy with that.”

Making the jump from junior to pro hockey is one of the hardest things to do in the sport. Cull has been impressed with Nielsen’s growth to this point in the season and is now very happy after Nielsen did more than just hold his own in a more demanding role.

“He’s been great,” said Cull. “He’s a kid who’s got confidence in himself, which is great. I love it. I love his attitude, and for him, it’s more just seeing the rest of the part of the game. He’s one of those guys who’s really risen to the occasion and taking a hold of the opportunity“

It’s not just the coach who is taking notice, the players are as well.

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”It’s incredible what he’s done,” said Jack Rathbone in Wednesday’s postgame availability. “It was a little bit of a coming-out party for him, which was just fun to see. He plays a pretty solid 200-foot game. That’s something that you work on when you’re coming into this league being a young guy and you can see the skills there but I think he’s a hard-working kid. Those are the guys you root for.”

Nielsen has impressed everyone over the past week and showed that he can belong in a top-six role with the Abbotsford Canucks. The question for the former Vancouver Giant is going to be if he can belong in an AHL top-six on a consistent basis.

The speed that Nielsen possesses makes him an exciting player to watch and when he is able to have his hands keep up to his feet — the offence begins to flourish.

With injuries to their usual top-six forwards, opportunities will continue to fall into Nielsen’s lap.

If he continues to seize the chances given to him, we could be talking about another exciting talent to watch out in Abbotsford.

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