Taylor Nelson makes his own breaks, and that’s not even taking into account his pregame Kit Kat tradition.
Nelson began the season as the Thunder’s backup goalie to Torrie Jung, who led Wichita to the Central Hockey League finals last season. Nelson quickly emerged as the best option in goal, more due to his own performance rather than Jung’s regression.
When the Thunder waived Jung and signed David Brown to replace him last weekend, Nelson commemorated Brown’s first week on the job by being named the CHL’s goalie of the week.
The Thunder didn’t add Nelson this offseason to fade into the background, and Brown wasn’t acquired to do much sitting, either. The goaltending situation is evolving, and there might not be a permanent name at the top of the depth chart, but Nelson is making it difficult to erase his.
“Like most coaches, and (for Kevin McClelland, especially), you’ve got to come and you’ve got to come and work hard,” said Nelson, a 25-year-old who has played 51 professional games. “I really don’t think that anything is a given, and that’s just this game. That’s any sport, for that matter – you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Jung was unable to build upon his career year before McClelland saw an upgrade in Nelson and Brown, who most recently played for Allen and impressed the Thunder in the playoffs last spring with Arizona.
Wichita’s defense has been shaky for much of the year, but the recent improvement can at least partly be attributed to Nelson, who helped the Thunder to a pair of victories last weekend, including a shootout win at second-place Missouri.
Nelson owns all four of Wichita’s victories, but that total is essentially reset every time he takes the ice. Coaches often stick with goalies who have the hot hand, and with two strong options that philosophy might be particularly true for McClelland and the Thunder.
“It’s something that I’ve gotten used to over the years,” Nelson said of the occasional instability of the position. “With goaltenders, a lot of it is mental. You’ve got to be able to bring it every night, because you are the last line of defense.”
Signing with Wichita and agreeing to play behind a goalie who was coming off a finals appearance was a calculated risk to which Nelson attached no expectations.
Though his professional experience is limited, Nelson spent time as an amateur in about every role a goalie can fill – starter, backup and as part of a 50-50 timeshare. He’s learned to deal with fluctuation by keeping a level head, a mentality that often leads to Nelson earning more playing time.
“I like to try to maintain the same thought process in all those situations,” Nelson said. “If you’re a backup, in your place and that role, you want to get those starts, so you’re practicing extra hard. Then, when your name is called, you don’t want to slip up. When you’re splitting time, you want to put in a coach’s head that you’re the guy.
“And when you’re the starter, you want to hold onto that position, so you’ve got to bring it every night. I like to keep the same mentality all the way through so you’re able to play the best you can when called upon.”
That consistency has carried Nelson through junior hockey, when he began eating a Kit Kat candy bar before every game, and through college, where he reached the NCAA championship game in 2012 with Ferris State.
It also has him with at least a fighting chance to become a full-time starter with the Thunder, where he calls his competition with Brown “healthy.” The Thunder is two points out of last place, and strong play from its goaltender may be the quickest route to a turnaround.
“It is the ultimate team sport, and it’s one tough game to put on one individual’s back,” Nelson said. “At the same time, I do enjoy the pressure and I do want to play the best that I can to give my team a chance to win every night.”