By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders might be playing well on the ice, but they find themselves in a tricky situation off it.
They have two important pieces of their puzzle heading towards free agency after this season, and they have decisions to make about both of them.
I’m referring to Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, and both will certainly command more money than they currently make. Both players have made pretty fair cases to justify their respective demands; the question is, can and should the Islanders acquiesce those requests?
To me, it’s pretty clear they should. But I’m well aware that it’s not so simple.
I’m not sure why people can’t seem to accept the fact or realize that Okposo is a star. Maybe it’s the toe drags or the past inconsistency that’s stuck in the collective memory of this fan base. Maybe people are trying to justify letting Okposo play elsewhere by pretending he’s not the kind of player any team would want.
Whatever the logic behind it, it’s severely flawed. All he does is produce. He’s meshed very well with John Tavares ever since the two were first united on a line together. He works hard for loose pucks in the corners and skates hard on every shift.
That might not have been good enough for USA Hockey, for some inexplicable reason, but it’s sure as heck good enough for the Islanders.
Normally, when assessing this team’s forward group, the conversation always starts with Tavares. If someone else is having a standout year, he’s the best player not named Tavares in the lineup. But through 33 games this season, Tavares hasn’t been their best forward. He’s been a tick or two behind his normal rate.
The Islanders’ best forward through 33 games has been Okposo, who has both out-produced and outplayed Tavares in just about every facet of the sport to this point.
Of course, you’d be crazy to suggest that Tavares isn’t the better player at the end of the day; by all accounts, he absolutely is. But what Okposo has proven over the past few seasons — and once again in 2015-16 — is that he is the Han Solo to Tavares’ Luke Skywalker persona. He’s a very reliable and productive winger, and those don’t grow on trees.
They do grow in Canadian juniors and in the AHL, but you don’t usually know for sure what you’re getting until they make the jump to the big leagues (if they do so at all). To get rid of a known commodity for a talented but unproven group of prospects like Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang isn’t a wise strategy.
If given the choice between retaining Okposo or Nielsen, I’d have to go with Okposo. That’s not a knock on Nielsen’s game, nor is it to suggest that he is easily replaceable. What it is, however, is a realistic analysis of the information that’s in front of us.
Nielsen is 31, and he isn’t getting any younger. He’s been productive this season, but his numbers right now are higher than they’ve been historically, and even if he can sustain that pace for the remainder of the season, you have to wonder how many more years he can keep that up. I also like the Islanders’ depth at center — both on the current roster and at the organizational level — more than I like their depth on the wings. I think they’re more prepared to absorb the impact of losing Nielsen than they would be if Okposo were to sign elsewhere.
All of these things must be considered. I would prefer both players get re-signed; I think you can always trade them away if younger players step up and deem them expendable. That’s a much easier problem to solve (though not an easy one) than letting them go and immediately trying to find replacements for them when they don’t necessarily exist.
What you don’t want to do here is trade one of or both players now, especially if you think you have a shot at making a deep playoff run (which I would hope the Islanders aspire to accomplish this season). So that’s out of the question, or at least it should be.
Yes, Okposo will want more money than the Islanders would prefer to pay him. Yes, he’s going to command a seven- or eight-year deal.
But that’s the nature of the business, and if you want to keep your key cogs intact, it costs money. Player salaries have also steadily risen over the past few years, so that perspective might be lost on some who are trying to compare Okposo’s asking price to what they think it should be.
At the end of the day, it’s better to pay him an extra million dollars per year than to lose him and be a worse hockey team. And though Tavares’ future contractual situation looms over the horizon, the response cannot be to steer clear of any other significant contracts.
The Islanders have to give Tavares pieces to work with to some extent, and we know Okposo can be one of them. He’s proven that.
I was all for letting P.A. Parenteau go to free agency when his absurdly high contract demands came to light. But this is different. We’re dealing with a much better player in Okposo.
It’s also worth mentioning that the salary cap is likely to increase next season, as well as throughout the duration of Okposo’s and Tavares’ next contracts. So there’s more flexibility there than you might think.
This isn’t like the cap nightmare the Pittsburgh Penguins currently find themselves in. They’ve committed $38M per season to just five players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury). That leaves them with just $33.4M to piece together the rest of their hockey team.
Say the Islanders were to give Okposo $7.5M per year, and the cap was to remain the same next season (which it won’t). And let’s assume that Tavares gets a $9M extension, which is in the neighborhood I think we’re looking at when it comes to that contract. That’s slightly under $46M committed to nine players (Tavares, Okposo, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Jaroslav Halak).
Unlike the situation in Pittsburgh, GM Garth Snow has navigated the salary cap very responsibly.
Get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s $5M cap hit (either by trading him or waiving him) and Marek Zidlicky’s $1.5M rate, and you’re in business. There’s enough space here to re-sign Ryan Strome when the time comes, and there might even be enough room for Nielsen.
Simply put, the Islanders have to put pen to paper and keep Okposo in the fold.
If you’re not willing to pay one player, you’re not going to be a competitive hockey team.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @bardownhowitzer.