Islanders Offseason Primer: Frans Nielsen

We covered the potential, and almost assured loss, of Kyle Okposo last week and now we start this week by taking a look at the second of the Islanders’ big three free agents heading into this offseason, Frans Nielsen. Nielsen, the much loved and longest-tenured Islander forward, is coming off a ridiculously team-friendly four-year, $11 million contract that he earned every penny of.

Nielsen has developed into one of the Islanders’ most important players over the course of his contract. In the last three seasons, he has produced 153 points and a minus-5 +/- rating while playing in 239 of a possible 246 games. He had the second best statistical season of his career this year from an offensive standpoint posting his second 20+ goal, 50+ point season, while matching his career high power-play point output of 20 points and setting a new career mark for shots on goal with 181. The Danish forward added six points in 11 playoff games for the Islanders this postseason while playing with Tavares and Okposo.

Nielsen finished third on the Islanders in points this season with 52, but his real value comes in his all around play. He is arguably the Islanders’ best defensive forward and the team’s most important penalty-killer, as evidenced by the number of Selke votes he’s received over the last five seasons.

Nielsen was third among Islanders forwards this season with more than 161 minutes of ice time on the PK, but over the last three season the only Islander with more PK minutes is defenseman Travis Hamonic. Nielsen was a driving force in helping the Islanders go from the 26th-ranked PK unit in 2014-2015 up to number four this past season.

However the real question when it comes to Nielsen is what is his worth? Nielsen is a very good player and with his skill set will be able to find a job somewhere very quickly come July 1. Jiggs McDonald  told our very own Patrick Hickey Jr. just last week that Nielsen is the one free agent that the Islanders must hold on to. His reasoning? He offers offensive diversity to play center or wing, is great defensively and is more cap-friendly for his position than either Okposo or Martin.

The negative is his age. Nielsen just turned 32 during the playoffs, meaning any long-term deal would put him above the age of 35. The Islanders have a plethora of options at the center position who are on the team or developing in their pipeline: Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Mikhail Grabovski, Casey Cizikas and Matthew Barzal.

The Islanders just handed Cizikas a large extension, meaning he will likely be seeing an increased role over his current fourth-line duty. With Strome and Nelson able to step into the second line role and Barzal developing quicker than many expected, what kind of role will Nielsen have on this team in the next two or three years?

The Islanders and their fans are right to want Nielsen back, and Jiggs is probably correct that he is the most irreplaceable alongside Okposo and Matt Martin. However, the Islanders need to address the glaring offensive holes on this team this offseason and the team cannot commit significant cap space to a player who could be shuffled to a third line role, or worse, in the next two years. There are enough internal options to fill that second line role and take his place on the PK that management cannot neglect the need to bring in offensive firepower to put on the first line with Tavares in the coming weeks and months.