By Jeff Capellini
At some point, the Islanders are going to have to make decisions on Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo.
They won’t be easy.
Each veteran forward is off to a fast start in the final year of a very affordable contract and will undoubtedly have many suitors should unrestricted free agency become reality next summer.
The issue is whether the Islanders are willing to let either or both potentially walk for nothing.
Nielsen must have general manager Garth Snow weighing the pros and cons of giving a player that will turn 32 in April a long-term deal. Okposo probably has the veteran executive contemplating how he can possibly make this guy the highest-paid player on the team, at least in the short term.
The fact remains that Nielsen is very good at both ends of the ice. While his defensive prowess is still his bread and butter, he has become better overall on the offensive end over the last several seasons. The improvement has coincided with the Isles asking him to be less of a checking line guy/Selke Trophy wannabe and more of a top six forward.
John Tavares aside, Nielsen has been the Isles’ best offensive player through their first 19 games, and has played a major role of late in getting this team out of a funk that threatened to put it way behind the 8-ball in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.
With eight goals and 14 points, Nielsen looks poised to surpass his career season of 2013-14 in which he finished with 25 goals and 58 points. He’s currently on pace to crack 30 and 60, respectively, production the Isles will desperately need as they try to not only get into the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, but also win a round for the first time since 1993.
Snow put his eggs in the youth maturation basket this past offseason. He chose not to add proven veteran pieces because he expected young guns like Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson to take the next step. I disagreed with this plan in a big way, but gradually decided a fair way to truly judge the logic would be to assess a quarter of the 2015-16 season.
Well, we’re 19 games in and my review is mixed.
Snow’s approach was very risky when you consider that the Islanders, despite a 101-point season, failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs last spring. Though this team has played better over the last four games, its body of work to this point suggests it isn’t quite as good as it was last season. The Isles were 13-6 (26 points) through 19 games last season as opposed to 10-6-3 (23 points) currently. Though special teams, goaltending and overall defensive play are improved, only recently has the secondary scoring started to get its act in gear.
As of this moment, with the exception of Nelson, the young guys most counted on haven’t quite made the leap Snow envisioned. That’s not to say they won’t — and, like I said earlier, the Isles’ current streak of three wins in their last four has gone a long way toward reducing the panic level — but it tends to get late early in the NHL, especially considering the parity that rules on a nightly basis.
Nelson is off to a good start with six goals and 12 points, but Strome was sent down to AHL Bridgeport after managing just a goal and a handful of assists in his first dozen games, and Lee has just three goals and is a minus-3 through the season’s first six weeks.
Add to that the combined eight goals scored by homegrown Josh Bailey, and veteran imports Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin and it’s easy to see just how valuable Nielsen has been.
He has been literally indispensable.
All indications are the Isles won’t be sellers during the season if they are well-entrenched in the Eastern Conference race, as they figure to be. It would likely take quite a tank job by his team for Snow to move both Nielsen and Okposo, who is apparently asking for the gross domestic product of a small country for his next yearly fee.
The Islanders appear willing to ride both out until the end. And if Nielsen and Okposo don’t see eye to eye with Snow’s numbers when the time comes, they’ll be free to go. I can see both sides of the argument — trying to get something instead of losing either or both for nothing versus appealing to the players’ sensibilities at a time and place to be determined while going for the jugular on the ice in the interim.
The question is, what’s fair? At this point it’s really hard to say.
If Nielsen keeps this up, my guess is he could command up to $5 million per season on the open market, which would be a considerable raise over what he makes now (AAV of $2.75 million). I cannot imagine the Islanders paying him that much, even though he fits the system a lot better than, for example, a guy like Matt Moulson, who was shipped out despite more modest financial wants. There’s no question Nielsen is an important cog. It’s just his age that’s a potential problem when discussing long-term options.
Okposo’s situation is trickier because he’s just beginning his prime years. He’ll be 28 when next season starts and has proven he can be productive without Tavares on his wing or even in the lineup, for that matter. Obviously, it’s better for all involved when Okposo and Tavares play together, which is something that started up again a few games ago, but head coach Jack Capuano tinkers with lines to no end. There’s no telling who will play together and for how long.
There has never been a contract demand from the Okposo camp that the media has been able to label as definitive, but it is believed that he wants a deal comparable to what the Buffalo Sabres gave Ryan O’Reilly — $52.5 million over seven years starting in 2016-17.
The thing of it is, O’Reilly has not been as productive as Okposo, as he has 260 points in 444 career games, while Okposo has 321 in 469. So you really cannot blame Okposo for wanting what he wants, assuming the speculation over what he’s looking for has indeed been accurate.
If I had to guess — and that’s all this is — it wouldn’t shock me to see Nielsen find common ground with the Isles over seeking what likely would be his final significant payday in free agency. He has hinted many times he doesn’t want to play anywhere else and I believe him.
Of course, it takes two to tango. He could fall off the Isles’ radar regardless of the numbers he puts up. I say that because Snow has stockpiled young talent at forward for a very long time and in this day and age of the salary cap teams feel less inclined to hold on to their older players if options with upside are in their system, which appears to be the case with the Islanders. See Michael Dal Colle, Josh Ho-Sang and Mathew Barzal for reference, though it’s hard to predict where each will be in the pipeline in the coming years.
Okposo will remain the bigger question mark. Already with 16 points and the ability to be a point-per-game player in the NHL, something Tavares currently is, Okposo’s earning power might just be too much for him to ignore. And let’s not forget the Isles will soon have to prioritize extending Tavares for a very long time at a price tag that could make holding on to several of their own players prohibitive.
It’s an over-used cliche, but the Islanders remain a team on the rise. Just how far they will go this season may very well be directly tied to what Nielsen and Okposo end up being. It would behoove Snow to be careful here. Prospects are just that, prospects. You simply never know what they will become.
But you do know what Nielsen and Okposo are. These games of chicken could have ramifications for a long time if they don’t work in the Isles’ favor.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet