LOS ANGELES — Nine months and three hockey lifetimes ago, Frans Nielsen, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo formed one line that began the playoff series that the Islanders eventually won. The trio reunited for dinner here Friday night, reminiscing on what now seems, in Nielsen’s description, like “old times.”
A lot has changed since the Islanders played the Panthers in the first round last spring, including the fact that the coach who put them together briefly, Jack Capuano, is out of a job. But the sweet outweighed the bitter because all three are NHL All-Stars.
That was especially meaningful for Nielsen, the all-purpose center who played on wing for a while in the postseason, and Okposo, the power forward, because they probably never would have made the league’s showcase had they not moved on to the Red Wings and Sabres, respectively. “It was great, just picked up where we left off, with our friendship,” said Tavares, the Islanders captain and perennial All-Star representative. “It was great to see them get here and be rewarded as great players. They’ve had great careers. It’s great to see them be All-Stars.”
Okposo said they joked about the fact he and Tavares were matched against each other in Saturday night’s accuracy shooting competition, which Okposo edged Tavares. “Well, he seemed pretty confident,” Okposo said Saturday morning of his friend and longtime linemate. “I’m going to do something, maybe water his gloves. We’ll see. Johnny is Johnny, I played with him and Fransie for a long time. To share this weekend with them is pretty special.”
Still, there was a poignant element to the reunion, given that all three had been career Islanders before Nielsen and Okposo left as free agents — not long after they hugged in joy because words failed them once the Islanders won a series for the first time in 23 years. Nielsen, in fact, seemed a bit emotional when he spoke about the reunion during a media day interview session in preparation for Sunday’s game at Staples Center.
“We had gone through so much together over the years in New York. I’m really excited to be here, together with them,” he said. “We had dinner and caught up on old times and what’s going on today. We went through some hard times in New York in the beginning. When you do that and grow as a team, I think you build a special bond with those guys you go through those hard times with. They’re two of my best friends today and I miss them a lot, for sure.”
Okposo pointed out that Nielsen is a father now, adding, “I’m sad I’m not seeing that.” Yet business is business and the two Islanders expatriates have good contracts. All three players realize that the business can be tough, witnessed by Capuano’s recent firing as Islanders coach.
“The timing was a little bit strange, I thought. I texted him right away, just wished him the best,” Okposo said. “He was my first pro coach ever, did a lot for me, did a lot for my game. I will always be grateful.”
Nielsen added, “I was a little shocked about it. It seemed like they were playing pretty good when it happened. I like Cappy, I had him since I was at Bridgeport. He probably means more to my development and to the player I am today than anyone else.”
He is hopeful that the former coach will get another job by next year. And Tavares, speaking with the international media, reinforced his intention to stay where he is. Yes, he would be open to talking about an extension when the window opens on July 1. No, he does not talk much to the new owners, but he respects them.
“I’m excited about where the Islanders are headed,” said the last of the three buddies left on their first team. “And hopefully we can work something out.”