Detroit — The year 2020 cannot end fast enough for many people around the world.
Count Red Wings forward Frans Nielsen among those who are eager to flip the calendar to 2021 and get going on the next chapter of his career.
Let’s face it: For both Nielsen and the Red Wings, 2020 was a dud.
“It was a tough year,” Nielsen said from his native Denmark, after helping put his kids to bed and thinking about the past season past and the season ahead (whenever that’ll be).
From a team perspective, the Red Wings finished last in the NHL and won just 17 of 71 games (17-49-5).
The Wings weren’t very good — and Nielsen didn’t help.
Nielsen had, statistically, the worst season of his 14-year career. In 60 games, Nielsen had nine points (four goals, five assists), with a minus-13 plus-minus rating.
On a Red Wings’ team that needed more offensive production from a valued two-way center, Nielsen’s season was a gut punch.
“For me personally, I wasn’t, for sure, not even close to being happy about it,” Nielsen said. “About what I did (for the team).”
Not surprisingly, there was constant chatter of the Nielsen, 36, being a buyout candidate or a trade possibility, although either scenario would be a long shot.
Nielsen has two more years left on his on his six-year, $31.5 million contract ($5.25 million salary cap hit) signed in July 2016, coming in, theoretically, to replace the retired Pavel Datsyuk.
If the Wings were to buy out Nielsen this offseason, they would take a salary cap hit of $3,416,667 next season, $4,416,667 in 2021-22, and the $666,667 the next two seasons after that, per capfriendly.com.
But compliance buyouts never became a topic of discussion in terms of a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHL Players Association, and it’s doubtful the Wings would have let Nielsen — an alternate captain on a young roster that values his leadership — be bought out.
The hope within the organization is Nielsen can rebound, be a productive bottom-six forward at minimum, and continue being a veteran presence.
Nielsen is determined to change whatever perceptions are being attached to him.
It wasn’t the social media chatter of his future that bothered Nielsen, or spurred him, as much as his own personal disappointment.
A proud veteran player who has had long, distinguished career, Nielsen has changed his entire offseason routine this summer.
He’s determined to whitewash 2019-20.
“My mindset this summer has been one of putting it all out there,” said Nielsen, who compared the situation as if he was training as a 25-year-old again. “I haven’t been burying my head. I’ve been working.
“I’m pushing myself, and the body is feeling good. I’m putting the work in. Hopefully that’ll carry over into the season.
“I had to work even harder.”
Nielsen has been working out with Timra of the Swedish Elite League, along with Danish teams in his native Denmark, where he and his family have been living since about late April.
Nielsen has been skating three times a week — rinks in Sweden and Denmark have generally remained open during the pandemic — and feels it has done him, and will continue to do him, good.
“Absolutely, because these guys I am skating with, they’re fighting for jobs and to get into the lineup, so it’s a high pace, and people are competing out there,” Nielsen said. “So I’m getting that right now.
“I’m back to that mindset, a little bit, of I’m 25 again. I went all in this summer. I don’t know how long I’m going to play and I’ll see where it takes me. But I’m training as hard as I can.
“I needed to do something and this has been a different type of summer. I knew this would be a long break, so I’m building up over a longer period of time.”
A difficult thing for Nielsen is there is no date to point to, no date that says this is when the next NHL regular season will begin.
The NHL has softly targeted Dec. 1 (with a Nov. 17 training camp start date), but as the days go by, nobody believes that will happen. More likely, it’s a regular-season start date sometime in January.
So, Nielsen plans to continue staying in Demark until “the last possible moment,” so he can skate and train regularly with other NHL players in his area.
“The toughest part is not having a date; you just don’t know where to be shape wise,” he said. “You don’t have a date to work toward. Usually, you know on Aug. 1 you need to start skating and you have another month to get into training camp shape.
“Right now, you don’t know where you should be in your training, and that’s the hard part. I’m staying in the gym and I’m still on the ice three times a week with the teams. I’ll bump it up to four times pretty soon. But it’s kind of weird, and you have to be careful. If we start in January, I’d have been skating for five months before the season begins.”
Nielsen knows what many fans and analysts are saying and writing, about the Red Wings being far from contending for a playoff spot. And Nielsen admits there probably a few more steps the Wings have to take before they get to where they want to be.
But Nielsen feels the Wings can improve, and will continue to have goals of being a playoff team next season.
“As a professional athlete you’re going to come in there and compete,” Nielsen said. “We want to compete for a playoff spot. For sure, that has to be everyone’s goal. You have to put the bar up there.
“We can take a step forward.”
Nielsen feels with the type of group the Wings have, they can move forward collectively.
“As a group, it’s such a tight group, a fun group to be around, and at least that way, it made coming to the rink every day fun,” Nielsen said. “Because it is such a good group of guys. We handled it as well as we could. We didn’t have any selfish guys. We have people that care for each other and that helped a lot.
“There were a lot of tough days. You wondered why couldn’t we figure this out. But as a group we cared for each other and that helped a lot.”
This weekend, Nielsen and the Red Wings would typically be in Traverse City beginning training camp, having some intrasquad scrimmages, and getting ready for the exhibition season early next week.
Instead, Nielsen will remain in Demark and be around family and make the best of a different, “weird” situation.
“Around this time, we would have left a long time ago,” Nielsen said. “Instead, you’re still here and I’ve been working out and skating here, and it’s just weird. I’ve never seen an autumn back here (in Demark) at home. It’s strange being here.
“But I, we, miss competing and playing again. I’m all for whatever they (the NHL) figure out (for the next regular season), and hopefully we can play sooner than later.