Islanders Still Hurting from Nielsen Loss

At the start of the free-agency period in the summer of 2016, the New York Islanders started to look different. As the team began to take shape, fans quickly ran to Twitter to voice their displeasure and concern. It hurt to all at once lose some of the more passionate players on the team.

The visible grit and determination that Matt Martin displayed every night, as well as the power and at times prolific scoring ability Kyle Okposo brought to the table were tough to lose (to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres respectively), but no departure has affected the team more than Frans Nielsen choosing to sign with the Detroit Red Wings.

How Did It Happen?

Throughout the 2015-16 NHL season, based on chatter and lack of activity, one could see that Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin would not be offered contracts to play the following season with Long Island’s team. While Matt Martin was a fan-favorite and more mobile than historically stereotyped fourth-line grinders, he was simply the odd man out of the Isles’ hard-hitting line of overachievers’ equation, as they prioritized Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck long-term.

Kyle Okposo
Kyle Okposo with the Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was also thought that Kyle Okposo was clearly great for the Islanders at a cap hit of $2.75 million, but for what he would now command on the open market ($5-7 million) the money could be better utilized elsewhere. The feeling going into July 1 and through to the end of the season though was that Frans Nielsen would eventually be offered a contract and finish his career as a New York Islander, but that was far from the reality.

Where It All Went Wrong

On July 1, Nielsen was indeed offered an extension somewhere in the range of $35 million over seven years, but he elected to go with the Detroit Red Wings’ offer of one less year and a few million bucks short. Nielsen, now 32, had spent his entire 10-year career up to that point with just one franchise, and desire brewed inside of him to try something different. One has to wonder though if things would have been different if it had been handled by general manager Garth Snow with a bit more finesse.

General manager Garth Snow
General manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nielsen was not offered a contract until after the season and his uneasiness over not having a new contract became curiosity about what another team could be like and which teams would be clamoring for his services.

“I didn’t think I was going to leave, to be honest,” said Nielsen. “I always thought we would get a deal done. But I don’t have one bad thing to say about the Islanders organization.”

“When the season ended, I had no thoughts about playing anywhere else. The talks dragged on a little bit and it wasn’t until that week before [the July 1 start of free agency] that I really started to think about playing somewhere else, how exciting that could be.”

It’s as though Garth Snow, knowing he was not going to keep Kyle Okposo or Matt Martin past the season simply saw it as more prudent to leave the situation for later rather than to distract the team and those players by taking care of “Fransy” business and not other pending UFA’s on the team while the Islanders were focused on the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One will never know what could have been, but the problem largely remains the same. It has not worked out.

Where Are the Islanders Now?

The repercussions of that signing day are still reverberating through the franchise almost two years later, as the Islanders’ players will be hitting the links at Bethpage for the second straight season and will have to watch the majority of the league (including the NHL’s newest Vegas Golden Knights) enter battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Frans Nielsen Red Wings
Frans Nielsen, Detroit Red Wings, December 20, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Red Wings’ Nielsen was a greatly useful player for his former team in any scenario. First line, second line, third line, the power play, the penalty kill; you name it, and he was the man for the job. Coach Doug Weight could send him out to pressure against the opposing team’s top line too, and he’s up for the task. Nielsen was above average in just about everything on the ice in the game of hockey, on top of his energy, attitude, and intelligence.

Without Nielsen, the Islanders, worst of all, are left without a player on the roster that you could reasonably rely on to be responsible and just plain smart with the puck (let alone at the Center position). Followers of the Islanders know this is the team’s main problem in the current 2017-18 campaign. One can only dream of having a Tavares-Barzal-Nielsen-Cizikas lineup as the one-through-four and what it could have done for this season.

When breaking out of the defensive zone, the team seems so largely focused on rushing the puck out that it has often not made the right first pass. This has led to increased offensive zone time for the opposition and often ends horribly with avoidable breakdowns eventually leading to the many pucks that have been filling the Islander net during not just 2017-18 but the previous season as well. The Islanders have seen their goals against go up incrementally in each of the two campaigns since Nielsen left.

Frans Nielsen
Frans Nielsen with the Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The mere presence of a guy like Frans Nielsen around a team like this would go a long way in changing the unwanted culture that has been unpleasantly festering in the defensive zone the past couple of seasons. While still an effective and great player, Nielsen has not seen the best fit for himself so far in Detroit with the Wings, so maybe it’s not too late for a trade back to the Islanders…?…Garth?…Anybody?