Collegiate Defensemen Making Presence Known at Forward for Syracuse

By Jeremy Houghtaling

With a glut of players occupying the organizational blueline, the Tampa Bay Lightning came up with a new plan for Drew Olson and Carl Nielsen.

Despite spending more than a decade as defensemen, the pair was signed and turned into forwards. A dozen games into their rookie seasons, Olson and Nielsen are getting acclimated with the position change with the Syracuse Crunch.

“At first it was a little different, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or what to think about it,” Nielsen said. “But the more I play it, the more comfortable I feel and actually enjoy playing on the front end -- getting in front of the net and going into the corners as opposed to playing defensively.”

Although their offensive numbers weren’t exceptional -- they combined for 41 points over four years in college -- the Tampa Bay organization saw potential in both Olson and Nielsen.

Olson, a 6-foot Minnesota native who played his collegiate career for the University of Minnesota Duluth, has provided energy on various lines for the Crunch this season. After finishing up college last spring, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2008 fourth-rounder was signed to a tryout by Peoria, where he played one game at defense and four more at forward.

The Lightning, having seen what he could do, traded for the 23-year-old’s rights and signed him over the summer.

"He has really good speed, but frankly, there wasn't going to be enough room for him on defense," said Crunch coach Rob Zettler of Olson. "We saw a really good kid who worked hard and skated well. We thought we'd try him up front."

Nielsen, a 6-4 Ohio native, was a stay-at-home defenseman at Michigan Tech. After signing a tryout contract and playing two games with Syracuse last season, the 25-year-old earned a deal with Tampa Bay.

Nielsen played 12 games with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL before his call-up to Syracuse last week.

"We were looking for size, and we thought he skated really well," Zettler said of Nielsen. "He's a big body and he likes to hit a little bit, and we could use more of that up front."

The transition hasn’t come easy. Nielsen and Olson each guessed they hadn’t played forward regularly since their early days in youth hockey, and have spent time with coaches beyond the regular practices to learn the intricacies of playing wing.

“It almost like a foreign language,” Nielsen said. “I could tell you how to defend a two-on-one, but I couldn’t tell you what to do coming down on a defenseman doing a two-on-one...I could tell you where everyone was going to be on a breakout, but now that it was my turn to be there, I all of a sudden drew a blank.”

For both Olson and Nielsen, who are on AHL contracts, they never expected to be switched but completely trust the Tampa Bay organization.

“They’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have,” Nielsen said. “So I took their word for it, showed up and put the work in.”

“It doesn’t matter, as long as I get to play,” Olson said, “Forward or D.”

Pictured: Crunch forward Drew Olson skates during practice at the Onondaga County War Memorial last week.