Over the past few days, I’ve been looking at the unenviable situation Garth Snow has to deal with in Brooklyn this summer. Finally, after year after year of mediocrity, terrible management, paying Alexei Yashin to not play for the team, and a seemingly endless rebuild, the New York Islanders are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be set for an extended playoff run. That said, they also have to weigh the possibility of losing two of their best forwards, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, for nothing come July as they’re both set to hit free agency.
Like Okposo, Nielsen is having one of the best seasons of his career at just the right time. He’s third on the Islanders in scoring with 12 goals and 10 assists, and he has the best possession numbers on the team despite starting roughly 53 per cent of his shifts in the defensive zone. Obviously Nielsen’s value as a two-way producer is undeniable, but he’s going to be 32-years old at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, so can the Islanders afford to offer him a new contract?
Nielsen has epitomized the concept of “solid, two-way, second line centre” over the past few seasons. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, he’s 46th in the NHL among centres with 0.65 points-per-game, putting him among company like Tomas Plekanec, Derick Brassard, and Brandon Dubinsky. He’s also maintained solid possession numbers at even strength despite making heavy defensive zone shift starts against difficult opposing competition, and only Nikolai Kulemin has logged more minutes on the penalty kill over the past couple seasons for the Islanders than he has.
So what kind of contract should Nielsen get on the open market? Obviously he doesn’t have a name as exciting as somebody like David Backes, but over the past few seasons, he’s been almost as effective. Since 2013-14, Backes has 0.72 points-per-game, slightly above Nielsen’s aforementioned 0.65 figure, and they each have similar possession numbers while playing heavy defensive zone assignments. How about Tomas Plekanec? Like I said, Nielsen and Plekanec have nearly identical offensive numbers over the past three seasons, and both players play a similar role on their respective teams.
It’s expected that Backes will get at least $6 million over five or six years on the open market, and Plekanec has already signed a two-year extension with the Canadiens worth $12 million over two years. It’s hard to imagine Nielsen, who’s been in the same ballpark as Backes and Plekanec, to sign for less than $5 million annually.
His current deal, signed back in February of 2012, was worth $11 million over four years, giving him an annual salary of just $2.75 million. He never signed a standard entry-level contract after being drafted by the Islanders in 2002, forgoing his first NHL deal until he signed a two-year, $1.245 million deal in 2006. After that, he signed a four-year, $2.1 million deal in 2008. So throughout his career, Nielsen has made just over $12 million in salary. It’s safe to say he’s been a massive bargain for the Islanders, and at this stage in his career, he should be looking to cash in on his accomplishments.
I went into detail about the Islanders’ cap situation recently and concluded that it’s fairly unlikely that Snow will be able to sign both Nielsen and Okposo. In fact, it’s pretty likely, judging by what they’re going to command on the market coupled with other players on the team needing new deals, that they’ll walk away from both players. Obviously if that’s the case it would be a massive blow to a team who’s just started to establish themselves as a contender in the East, but that’s the reality of a cap world. Of course, they can mull over the idea of trading Nielsen or Okposo at the deadline for cheaper and controllable assets, but that would obviously hinder their chance at a playoff run this year, and judging by how hard trades have been to come by, finding the right deal seems a little farfetched.