Play him at forward. Play him at defense. It doesn’t really matter.
Sure, Danny Nelson will line up at a certain position, and he'll have an F or D next to his name on the roster. But the Maple Grove sophomore plays with the sort of fluidity and intuitiveness that doesn’t work well with hard-and-fast labels or designations.
“Danny can play where he wants to play,” Maple Grove coach Todd Bergland said after the Crimson beat Moorhead 5-2 on Saturday at the Plymouth Ice Center in the third-place game of the Wayzata Turkey Trot.
Nelson, loosely designated as a forward to start the season, scored on a shorthanded breakaway, scored on a power play and showed some feistiness en route to a second-period roughing penalty. Call it high school hockey’s equivalent of the old Gordie Howe Hat Trick.
“He’s fun to see when he’s on,” Bergland said. “And he was on today.”
The goals were the first of Nelson’s varsity career, one that begins with an endless amount of promise. If he’s not the best sophomore in the state, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Nelson is squarely in the middle of the discussion. He starred at the Bantam AA level last winter, was a standout in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League this fall and was among the top scorers for the U.S. Under-17 team that won the Five Nations Tournament in Switzerland just before the start of the high school season.
“Danny is already a man as a 10th grader,” Bergland said about the younger brother of Henry Nelson, a standout defenseman for the Crimson last season.
Nelson played forward at the youth level, defense in the Elite League and was back at forward for the U.S. national team, scoring four goals and adding four assists in four games. When Nelson lines up at defense, he spends a lot of time deep in the offensive zone. When he’s a forward, he routinely hangs back at the blue line to cover for rushing Crimson defensemen. Think of him as hockey's version of a rover.
Goalie is the only position he doesn’t play.
“But I wouldn't rule it out,” Bergland said with a laugh.
Nelson, of course, has his say in where he plays. For now, he chooses forward.
“It's more fun,” he said. “I like scoring goals.”
Nelson’s first varsity goal, on that shorthanded breakaway, led, of course, to his first varsity celebration. It involved a highly entertaining one-knee slide toward the plexiglass, behind which the Maple Grove student section was going bonkers.
Pre-planned? You know, something special saved up for that first varsity goal?
“Not really,” Nelson said. “It was just in the moment. I was like, ‘I better go celebrate into the student section.’ ”
Injuries to a couple of top Maple Grove forwards made the decision to play Nelson at forward easy for Bergland. If the defensive corps becomes short on healthy bodies, expect to see Nelson there, too.
“I told him he’s going to be a swing guy,” Bergland said. “He’s going to play D, he’s going to play forward, he’s going to play wherever we need him.”