Now that the playoffs have finished and we are in the run up to the draft and free agency, let’s take a look at what is to come in the next few weeks for the New York Islanders.
The Islanders have blossomed into a consistent playoff performer in the Eastern Conference and, for the first time since 1993, made it past the first round of the playoffs this season, ultimately falling in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Islanders have many questions that need to be answered in the next three weeks, and one of the biggest is concerning star winger Kyle Okposo.
Okposo is one of the longest-tenured Islanders on the team, right behind fellow UFA-to-be Frans Nielsen, and has blossomed into a legitimate power forward in the NHL. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 NHL season, Okposo has 67 goals, 117 assists, 184 points and 56 points-per game in 210 games. His 117 assists ranked fourth and 184 points rank him seventh among all right wings in the league in that time frame. The Minnesota native has broken the 40-assist and 60-point barriers twice in those three seasons, and was on-pace to do it in 2014-15 had he not been sidelined with a very scary cornea injury that resulted in him missing 20 games.
According to the Edmonton Journal, Okposo joins Steven Stamkos as the only two unrestricted free agents this offseason who have averaged 70 points per 82 games played over the last three seasons. However, the biggest question on the minds of many people in the hockey world is how will Okposo fair when he is not around John Tavares?
Okposo has played without Tavares in the past and, in fact, played the majority of this season away from the Islanders star center at even strength. However, when the two have been apart in the last three seasons, Okposo has seen a slight downturn in his production.
Tavares and Okposo, along with Frans Nielsen, have been staples on the Islanders’ top power-play unit for years. With the Islanders mired in a late-season scoring slump, coach Jack Capuano put the three together at even strength and kept them together throughout the playoffs.
Okposo finished the season leading the Islanders with 42 assists and finished second to Tavares with 64 points. He added another eight points in the Islanders’ 11 playoff games, however he struggled to finish with just two points and a minus-5 rating in five games against the Lightning. Many in Islanders country would like the talented, homegrown winger to return to the team, but that is looking increasingly less likely. Throughout the year, general manager Garth Snow repeatedly said that the team was not going to trade Okposo, despite the risk of losing him to unrestricted free agency on July 1. And then he dropped this line this morning on SiriusXM NHL Radio:
— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) June 17, 2016
The writing has been on the wall for Okposo and the Islanders for at least a year now. With the state of the salary cap in the NHL, the Islanders have less wiggle room than they would like. Okposo has been a willing and able soldier for them since he came into the league but he is not going to get “market value” from the Islanders. The Islanders know he won’t take the “hometown discount” and sign for less to stay, and while the team values him, they have a number in mind for him and want to stay there.
The indications are clear: the Isles want to get better this offseason, but will only “overpay” for someone they consider a top-flight player. They do not want, and can’t afford, to get snakebit by any more bad contracts.
Okposo is a very good player and someone will give him the money that he is looking for, presumed to be in the five-year, $6.5-7 million AAV range. But is he a top-flight player or is he a product of playing in great offensive situations with Tavares, like Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes? We’ll know in the next couple of years. Right now, one would have to assume that Snow is working the phones trying to find a team interested in acquiring Okposo’s negotiating rights before the draft, trying to bring back even a small asset. The one thing that is certain as of this morning is Okposo almost assuredly will be house hunting somewhere else come July 1.