Who would you rather own in your fantasy hockey league – Brock Nelson or Aleksander Barkov?



One of the nice things about running the recently completed summer 2015 Cage Match tournament was it gave me fresh ideas of players to use for Cage Matches during the rest of the offseason. Take this week’s combatants for example – Brock Nelson and Aleksander Barkov. Not only are they separated by only eight total points in career scoring, but as part of my tournament research I noticed they were drafted in nearly identical average spots on Yahoo last year (157.2 for Nelson, 160.7 for Barkov). That sure sounded like the makings for a great match, so let’s run with it – Cage Match starts now!


Career Path and Contract Status


Nelson was a first round pick (30th overall) by the Isles in 2010 and in the NHL to stay by 2013-14, following two seasons of college hockey and one campaign in the AHL. Although is rookie output was only 26 points in 72 games, 16 of those points came in his final 41 contests and while he was receiving 16:42 and 16:59 in Total Ice Time per game over the final two months of the regular season. Clearly things were looking up.

But even those expecting Nelson to improve were no doubt surprised when he emerged with 23 points in his first 26 games of the 2014-15 campaign. Unfortunately, he finished with only 19 more points in his remaining 56 contests and didn’t average more than 15:34 of Total Ice Time per game in any of the season’s final four months, leaving poolies unsure what to expect from Nelson in 2015-16 and beyond.

Barkov was selected second overall in the 2013 entry draft, and won’t turn 20 until next month (Nelson will be 24 in October). Not surprisingly for a top three pick, Barkov went straight into the NHL, where he managed only two fewer points than Nelson as a rookie, but in 18 fewer games. And although Nelson outscored Barkov by six in 2014-15, both were actually just above 0.5 points per game for the season overall. Plus, whereas Nelson limped to the finish line, Barkov was hitting his stride as the campaign was coming to a close, posting 15 points in his final 20 games and enjoying his highest and second highest monthly average Ice Times in the season’s final two months that coincided with those 20 games.

Barkov is entering the final season of his ELC, which counts only $0.925M against the cap but has an AAV of $3.575M when factoring in bonuses. Nelson, on the other hand, is still an RFA (without arbitration rights) as I write this; but as I noted in my guest Ramblings on Monday, once he comes to terms with the Islanders, he figures to make somewhere in the vicinity of $2.5-3M per season based on the amounts comparable players have signed for of late.


Ice Time



Total Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)


15:52 (B.N.) – 5th

17:29 (A.B) – 1st

2:42 (B.N.) – 4th

2:15 (A.B) – 4th

0:56 (B.N.) – 6th

0:27 (A.B) – 8th


14:15 (B.N.) – 10th

17:05 (A.B) – 3rd

1:51 (B.N.) – 8th

2:40 (A.B) – 1st

0:50 (B.N.) – 5th

0:07 (A.B) – 13th


There’s nothing jaw dropping here for either player, as both saw their Total Ice Time increase from their rookie season to their sophomore campaign and each has a nice ratio of PP Ice Time to SH Ice Time. The only questions that jump out are, for Barkov, why did his PP Ice Time take a hit, and, for Nelson, does he have room to see his Total Ice Time continue to rise?


The Barkov PP Ice Time drop is a bit of a head scratcher; however, whatever the reason behind it, we know that gone from the team are Brad Boyes and Jimmy Hayes, who collectively accounted for exactly 4:00 in PP Ice Time in 2014-15 but only 3:44 in 2013-14. And although Reilly Smith has arrived, he’s not likely to see major PP Ice Time (he had 1:38 and 1:47 per game in his two seasons with Boston), so it’s reasonable to think there will be an “addition by subtraction” benefit to Barkov’s PP Ice Time just in the normal course. Not to mention the fact that Barkov ended the season on a huge high note and receiving more Ice Time. Long story short, it’s easier to envision Barkov getting back to 2:40+ per game with the man advantage in 2015-16 than it would be for his PP Ice Time to remain (or dip below) 2:15 per game.


As for Nelson, he’s been a chicken and egg type of producer, in that his Ice Time has been highest when he produces (or vice versa). That makes it all the more important to know whether poolies who own him in their leagues can count on him getting more Ice Time in the coming seasons.


Nelson is a natural center (he and Barkov were center-only eligible on Yahoo last season) on a team that has several who fit that bill. Specifically, John Tavares and Frans Nielsen were center-only eligible and played 16:30+ per game, whereas although Florida had more center only eligible players (Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, Dave Bolland, Vincent Trocheck), Barkov was one of only two (Bjugstad being the other) who played 16:30+ per game. In other words, Nelson seemingly has more barriers to Ice Time than Barkov, especially since Barkov already is his team’s leader. Plus, the shadow cast by John Tavares over Nelson might prevent him from being put into situations allowing him to be a top producer, whereas my sense is Barkov will end up either an unquestioned #1 pivot or at worst a 1A/1B type.


Secondary Categories




(per game)


(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)


(per game)

PP Points

(per game)


(per game)


0.29 (B.N.)

0.22 (A.B)

1.20 (B.N.)

0.49 (A.B)

0.63 (B.N.)

0.49 (A.B)

2.31 (B.N.)

1.73 (A.B)

0.18 (B.N.)

0.10 (A.B)

4.31 (B.N.)

6.50 (A.B)


0.16 (B.N.)

0.18 (A.B)

1.02 (B.N.)

0.29 (A.B)

0.52 (B.N.)

0.50 (A.B)

1.83 (B.N.)

1.61 (A.B)

0.09 (B.N.)

0.11 (A.B)

2.65 (B.N.)

7.40 (A.B)


Nelson holds a clear cut advantage, besting Barkov’s output in every area except FOW. It’s worth dwelling on FOW a bit, as both players –but especially Nelson – were dreadful in that category, to the point where any team in a league which counts that category could be at a significant disadvantage in having either player in their line-up. But whereas Nelson can at least compensate for that shortcoming via his better than average Hits and Blocked Shots and pretty decent Shots per game, Barkov posts merely average or even below outputs in the remaining categories as well.


What we don’t know is the breakdown for Barkov in most of these categories over his 20 game hot stretch to end the season, although we can see he posted 39 shots (for a slight improvement over his 1.73 per game full season average) and he potted two of his only three power play goals for the season within his final eight games. While that doesn’t mean his production in these categories should spike upward for 2015-16, it does suggest there’s realistic hope for improvement, although even if that occurs his outputs still figure to be less than what we’d expect from Nelson with or without Nelson seeing more Ice Time.


Luck-Based Metrics



Personal Shooting Percentage

PDO/SPSV (5×5)

IPP (5×5)

IPP (5×4)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)


10.6% (B.N.)

13.0% (A.B)

991 (B.N.)

993 (A.B)

57.1% (B.N.)

77.8% (A.B)

56.0% (B.N.)

37.5% (A.B)

43.5% (B.N.)

48.8% (A.B)


10.5% (B.N.)

9.2% (A.B)

969 (B.N.)

985 (A.B)

64.3% (B.N.)

54.8% (A.B)

63.6% (B.N.)

71.4% (A.B)

49.3% (B.N.)

51.2% (A.B)



If you’re like me, your eyes were probably drawn right away to the 43.5% OZ% for Nelson, as it’s alarmingly low, to the point where it acted as a de facto points inhibitor. Why do I say this? Not only was 43.5% the 55th lowest OZ% among the 307 forwards who played 60+ games in 2014-15, but of the 54 whose were even lower, only two had more points than Nelson’s 42 for the season (David Backes, Patrice Bergeron).


While in some ways his low OZ% shows that Nelson made the most of his unfortunate situation and likely could produce more if given the opportunity, the issue is that opportunity is seemingly a mirage. That’s because the only way to get an OZ% above 50% as an Islander forward is to line up alongside John Tavares at 5×5, which Nelson won’t do. After all, in the past three seasons, Tavares and the mainstay(s) on his line each had an OZ% higher than 60%, while the remainder of the Islander forwards – not surprisingly – were below 50%, with the exception being Anders Lee in 2014-15, who was at 58.6% thanks to playing most, but not all, of his even strength shifts with Tavares.


Shifting to Barkov, his OZ% dropped from 2013-14 as well, landing at 48.8% (fourth lowest among the 14 Florida forwards who played 40+ games in 2014-15). But 48.8% (129th lowest of the same 307 forwards who played 60+ games last season) would still allow for 60+ point scoring; plus, Florida also had eight players with an OZ% between 50.1% and 57.0%, which means there’s potential for his OZ% to rise.


Barkov also was negatively affected by an unsustainably low 5×4 IPP, which ranked him tied for 180th out of the 195 players who skated for 100+ minutes at 5×4 in 2014-15. Had Barkov’s 5×4 IPP been merely average (i.e., 58.3%, which was the 5×4 IPP for the 97th ranked player), that would’ve resulted in him posting three more PP points, which is nothing to sneeze at.



Who Wins?


If Nelson played a position other than center or was on most any other team, he just might’ve emerged as the winner in view of his much better secondary category production. But we know that centers on the Islanders not named John Tavares aren’t put in favorably scoring situations; and in view of Barkov’s advantages (comparable output at a younger age, lack of a Tavares-like production impediment, and his hot stretch to end the 2014-15 season versus Nelson’s limp to the finish), Nelson gets the short end of the straw in this match, while Barkov wins.


That leaves the questions of what to do if you own either player in a keeper, as well as whether either would be a wise choice to draft in a one-year league.


I’d hold both players in a keeper, as neither would be likely to net you enough in return to justify dealing them right now, although you could always toss out Barkov’s name, as some poolies might reflexively offer you a package that’s too good to refuse given his status as a recent memory second overall draft pick. You can also reassess at this time next year, while also not shying away from a “sell high” mid-season deal if one of the two goes on a huge hot streak (like Nelson had to start 2014-15).


In one year leagues, I’d probably shy away from both as well, as their center-only position eligibility (assuming that’s repeated for 2015-16) is suboptimal, as is the likelihood that have to reach to get either one. And by “reach” I mean you’d need to be prepared to draft them in the vicinity of other 55+ point players when more likely than not (i.e., more than 50% chance) neither one would actually post that many points during the upcoming season.