We continue our examination of the Islanders by position with today’s group that is most in flux: The forwards.
It was a relatively down year offensively for the Isles and a real roller-coaster of a season for John Tavares, who still managed to finish tied for 16th in the NHL with 70 points despite a couple of serious in-season droughts.
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What this past regular season showed general manager Garth Snow and his staff is that Tavares, while one of the true stars of the league, needs a top-level wing to work with. Coach Jack Capuano juggled his captain’s linemates all too regularly this season to try and find some chemistry, ultimately finding that his two other best forwards, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, worked best late in the season and through the opening round of the playoffs.
Nielsen and Okposo will be free agents in six weeks, which adds to the drama unfolding with this group in the offseason.
Here’s the first part of our breakdown, with advanced metric references thanks to the Hockey Analysis website and contract info from General Fanager.
— Here’s the difference between Tavares and us regular folks: Everyone will remember the tying goal in the final minute and the double-overtime winner in Game 6 to propel the Isles to the second round for the first time in 23 years. Everyone except No. 91. He’ll remember the four straight games without a point against Tampa and the Game 5 dud in particular. “I think that’s what will stay with you the most, the opportunity,” Tavares said. “We got a little closer, but we just didn’t get it done.”
This is why he’s your captain. There’s two more years left on his deal; when his entry-level contract was a year away from expiring his side and Snow got talks going early and had his current contract done before training camp started.
Will things go as smoothly once they can negotiate on July 1, 2017? We’ll see. But for all the talk that Tavares hated the move to Brooklyn, there was the roar he caused in Barclays Center when he wrapped the winner past Roberto Luongo.
Betting that stayed with him too.
— Okposo is still the second-most important Islanders forward, even if the signs pointing to his exit on July 1 have been illuminated since last June. Of the forwards who played regularly this season, Okposo was one of five above-average possession players: Tavares, Nielsen, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome were the others.
Factor in Okposo leading the team in power-play points and he is still an impact player. The question for Snow is whether Okposo has the sort of 24/7 impact to justify a seven-year contract around $6 million per year.
Snow had an answer to that question before last June’s draft, when he shopped Okposo around to see what haul the Isles could bring back. The answer still seems to be apparent as sources on both sides have made it clear there’s almost no chance of a deal being struck before we reach free agency.
If that holds, there’s two more questions that arise: Who replaces a player that’s averaged over 0.81 points per game each of the last three seasons? And what does Okposo’s good friend Tavares think of another close ally leaving the tight-knit group the way that Matt Moulson did previously?
“Those guys have been so crucial for me,” Tavares said of Okposo, Nielsen and Matt Martin. “I don’t think people realize how much I lean on those guys just to talk to. They are such great people, great leaders. They made such an impact on our team.”
— Nielsen is a different case than Okposo. Capuano leans as heavily on Nielsen as Tavares does; the 32-year-old center had another strong year in the advanced metrics, tied for second with seven power-play goals, tied for first with two shorthanded goals and took the second-most faceoffs.
He’s going to get a significant raise over the $2.75 million average annual value he was working off the last four years and, while plenty of folks throw the “underrated” tag on Nielsen, the whole league knows his value, even after 606 games and at his age.
Sources indicated last week that Snow and Nielsen’s agent would be speaking soon. When the Isles GM wants to reach out, he can usually get a deal done. And the Isles would likely overcommit on term (say, five years) to keep the AAV manageable and keep their longest-serving player in the fold until he’s ready to hang the skates up.
— Strome’s words on breakup day last week were consistent with how he handled a difficult year. “Not at all,” he said when asked if he’d changed his feelings about the organization. “It’s going to drive me more this summer to be better and make sure they can’t healthy scratch me ever again.”
Between a slow start, a three-week demotion to the AHL and three healthy scratches among the 11 postseason games, the 22-year-old Strome was definitely yo-yoed about. But considering his 28-point season, his advanced numbers weren’t bad on a team that was below-average in possession.
Dig a bit deeper and you see the forward Strome played with the most this season, Tavares, was also the one he was most dominant with at even strength. That tandem can still work and perhaps the outside addition to replace Okposo can be on the left side rather than the right.
Strome is a restricted free agent, which could go one of two ways. He could take his one-year qualifying offer of roughly $900,000, bet on himself to have a great 2016-17 and cash in next summer (the path Lee chose). Or he could negotiate hard for a longer-term deal and cause a little bad blood to arise (the Brock Nelson path).
I’d imagine it’ll be the first course of action for Strome, who won’t want to cause ripples heading into a season where he could establish himself as the top-line right wing for a long time.
— That bad blood from the Nelson contract stalemate didn’t linger, of course, and the big center got off to another hot start. Unfortunately and yet again, Nelson faded over the second half of the season and into the postseason, though Capuano kept Nelson in the lineup.
Nelson’s 23 even-strength goals were second to Tavares and Nelson did it with almost three fewer minutes per game (13:23 of EV ice time). There’s a lot to like.
But his cool demeanor sometimes extended into a floating style on the ice, which doesn’t fly much at all and certainly not in the playoffs. Nelson scored a goal in Game 1 against the Panthers and didn’t score again, which is a bad look for a goal scorer.
He’s got two more years at a very team-friendly $2.5 million AAV, so it seems highly unlikely Snow dangles Nelson in a possible deal to upgrade the team’s top six.
If Nelson can simply produce in the second half and the postseason the way he has in the first half the past two years, he’ll be the top-six upgrade himself.