The Islanders are focused on the opening bell of NHL free agency Friday at noon, with three of their own veterans heading to the market and the team’s front office doing some wining and dining in advance of the big day.
Andrew Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and the only captain in the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, was on Long Island on Thursday getting a tour of the Islanders’ new practice facility, among other stops. Ladd, 30, has scored at least 20 goals in five of the past six seasons.
Ladd could be the top-six winger Garth Snow covets to replace Kyle Okposo, who is headed to free agency as perhaps the player most likely to strike it rich quick. Okposo’s contract length and cost may end up being seven years and in the range of $6 million to $7 million per season now that Steven Stamkos has returned to the Lightning, taking the unquestioned top forward out of the free-agent mix.
The Sabres, who had been planning a whopper of an offer for Stamkos, are likely to turn to Okposo next — and Okposo, still close with former Islander and current Sabre Matt Moulson, has strong interest in Buffalo.
Frans Nielsen worked out at IceWorks on Thursday, but that could very well be the last time he skates at the team’s old practice rink as a member of the organization. Nielsen declined to comment on his situation Wednesday, but he is said to be a little uncomfortable with the free-agent process.
His camp and Snow are likely to revisit contract talks once the offers come in, but by then, his versatility and durability could bring him an offer too rich for the Islanders. The Red Wings could go hard after Nielsen after they — like the Sabres — set aside some salary-cap space to take a run at Stamkos.
If Nielsen leaves the Islanders, it will be a blow, and the options to replace him are a bit of a step down.
Blues captain David Backes has the scoring touch and the defensive ability, but he could command as much as $6 million per season.
Eric Staal could be a more reasonable short-term option, and sources indicated that the Islanders have reached out to Staal’s representative this week. The former Hurricanes captain and brief Ranger had a disappointing 2015-16, but he’s actually six months younger than Nielsen and was a teammate of Ladd’s on the 2006 Hurricanes Stanley Cup squad, along with current Isles assistant coach/GM Doug Weight.
Matt Martin is the last of the Isles’ homegrown veterans headed to free agency, and there’s basically no chance he will return. The Islanders don’t have anyone targeted to replace the popular Martin, who has led the league in hits the last five seasons, but if Snow finds two free agents, he’ll have plenty of options on the current roster to fill Martin’s fourth-line wing spot.
Possible free-agents targeted by the Islanders:
- Andrew Ladd. The two-time Stanley Cup champ (Hurricanes, 2006; Blackhawks, 2010) has the on-ice ability and the leadership/character traits Garth Snow would love to add. Ladd was on Long Island on Thursday being wooed.
- Eric Staal. The one-time Hurricanes captain had a disappointing fling with the Rangers at the end of last season and, after an illustrious career, could be seeking a two-year deal to restore his reputation. Like Ladd, brings an impeccable off-ice resume to a team that could use a winner or two.
- David Backes. The Blues captain has a lot of mileage on him but, like Staal, has the leadership history that could help the Isles. Also can put the puck in the net. Cost could be prohibitive for a center because the Isles most dearly covet a top-line wing.
- Jamie McGinn. The 27-year-old wing cracked the 20-goal plateau this season, split between the Sabres and Ducks. Could be a lower-cost wing option without some of the mileage on higher-priced, older FAs.
- Darren Helm. If Frans Nielsen goes to the Wings, who could be the highest bidder for Nielsen’s services, the Islanders could turn around and grab Helm, a younger version of Nielsen. Helm isn’t an offensive dynamo but does lots of strong defensive work.