By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
A year ago, Minnesota State defenseman Josh Nelson was struggling, but he didn’t want to make excuses for his play at the time.
“The first weekend out east at RPI, I kind of banged up my knee a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know if many people knew exactly what I was battling through there.”
All around him, his teammates were going down with far worse injuries, ailments that kept them out of the lineup for weeks at a time.
“We were short-handed for pretty much all of last year, up and down the whole roster,” Nelson said. “I think we all had to battle through a few things. It was just a tough season.”
Nelson knew he was hurting, but he also knew he could play — and needed to play.
“It would have been nice (to rest the knee),” he said. “But with the situation our team was in, there was absolutely no problem with me having to battle through that.”
While the knee hindered him at times, making the already-tough task of defending in the WCHA even tougher, Nelson proved he could be a reliable player for the Mavericks.
Now a junior, Nelson is getting more playing time than ever. He’s on the second power-play unit, and he’s killing penalties. In Saturday’s win over No. 2 Minnesota he opened the scoring with a wrist shot from the blue line in the first period. It was his second career goal.
First-year MSU coach Mike Hastings gave players a clean slate to start this season, so he didn’t dwell on what Nelson went through last year — good or bad. But it didn’t take long for him to see the good.
“He’s what I’d call a real honest player,” Hastings said. “I know the effort you get out of him is consistent every single day and in every situation.”
Whether it was with the old regime or a new one under Hastings, Nelson said he was determined to earn a top-four defenseman’s spot this year and get the kind of playing time he had as a junior-hockey player in Fairbanks, Alaska, or as a high school standout in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
“I knew we’d all be competing for a job, and I just looked at it like, ‘I want to be a leader this year,’ and come out with (senior captain Tyler) Elbrecht and try to set the tone for everyone up and down the roster,” Nelson said. “Really, I just went into this year trying to be a top guy, leading the defensive corps as well as the team.”
With last year’s injury and the previous season’s roster that included standouts Kurt Davis and Ben Youds, Nelson had to be patient, too.
“I’m happy to finally be there,” he said. “Mentally, I just stepped back after last season and looked at where I want to be and where I want to go with everything. I came in wanting to be that leader and be that top guy, not settling for anything less.”
Nelson said there is still work that needs to be done. He wants to be a more consistent defenseman and not just have flashes of what he did on Saturday night.
Hastings said Nelson is a good self-evaluator.
“He’s a kid of character, on and off the rink,” the coach said. “He’s respected in that locker room as much as anybody, from what he brings as a player and what he brings as a person.”