DENVER — There’s been so much Islanders personnel stuff to be concerned about over the past six months, it’s hard to remember between Kyle Okposo’s contract year and Travis Hamonic’s trade request that Frans Nielsen, the longest-serving current Islander, also needs a new deal.
Given the way Nielsen has played so far this season, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Isles without him. The 31-year-old center has been as indispensable as at any time in his 10-year Isles career, anchoring the second line, playing first-unit power play and as one of the four main forwards who rotate on the penalty kill.
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And doing it all quite well. He entered Thursday’s game here against the Avalanche second on the Isles with 12 goals, third with 22 points and part of the fourth-ranked PK in the league.
“He’s a leader and really, he doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body. It’s all about the team for him,” Josh Bailey said of Nielsen, who played his 558th game in an Islanders uniform on Thursday. “That’s just his character.”
And Nielsen reinforces that team-first ideal when the subject of a new contract comes up. He’s making $3.5 million this year on a $2.75 million cap hit and both of those numbers are enormous bargains. There’s been very little in the way of talks between his side and Isles GM Garth Snow, but Nielsen is unconcerned.
“I think I’m in a place where the contract is not everything to me,” Nielsen told Newsday on Thursday morning. “Winning means a lot to me right now. That’s what’s driving me, driving us to take the next step to have another good season and do a little more in the playoffs.”
Nielsen’s all-around solid play so far this season is a reminder of how hobbled he was for the final two months of last season after suffering a high ankle sprain on Feb. 22. He managed to play 17 of the final 21 games last season and all seven playoff games, but his skating was hampered too much for him to be as effective as he could be.
“I’m not exactly the biggest and strongest out there, so I need my skating,” he said. “You take that away and I’m not the same player. It feels good to be whole right now.”
Nielsen neared unrestricted free agency once before, during the 2011-12 season. He was playing out a four-year deal that paid him $550,000 a season — an even bigger bargain than what he’s making now.
But there was no hesitation in February 2012, as the Islanders wobbled towards the trade deadline headed for the draft lottery. Nielsen re-upped for four more years at another affordable number.
“It was a difficult time that year,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t really know what they were thinking. It’s different now, I think. It’s a little easier to feel confident that someone wants you around.”