It doesn’t seem likely the Lightning will move Steven Stamkos, their captain and top goal scorer, before the trade deadline on Feb. 29, and the reasons why are obvious.
Tampa Bay has been one of the best teams over the past few weeks, appear to be turning it on at the right time and look like Stanley Cup contenders after a slow start. In a conference that looks wide open outside of the stellar Washington Capitals, the Lightning could be staring down consecutive Stanley Cup appearances. With that in mind, moving Stamkos, a goal scorer with game-breaking ability, would be unwise unless the return is impossible to pass up or the Lightning are positive their captain is gone come free agency. Even then, it’s hard to fathom.
Which brings us to the New York Islanders’ situation with Kyle Okposo. Okposo, like Stamkos, is in the prime of his career. The 27-year-old is the type of big body scorer that can excel in the post-season. He’s a two-time 20-goal scorer and could be the perfect top-six asset for a team ready to take the next step. He could fetch a nice return for the Islanders.
Like Tampa Bay, though, the Islanders are currently holding down a post-season spot and are in the thick of the Eastern Conference’s wild-card race. And just like Tampa Bay with Stamkos, the Islanders could risk losing the unrestricted free agent-to-be Okposo for nothing if they don’t deal him. It all adds up to New York GM Garth Snow having a tough decision to make as deadline day approaches.
In Okposo, the Islanders have a dynamic top-six player. With 41 points this season, Okposo is the Islanders’ leading scorer. He’s on pace for a 24-goal, 66-point campaign, and that would be the second-best point total of his career. Fittingly, that season comes as Okposo is primed to become a UFA, which could mean a big cash in for the Minnesota native in the off-season. There’s no doubt the Islanders would love to ink Okposo to an extension if they could work it out, but can they?
Okposo is in the final year of a 5-year, $14-million deal he signed in May 2011. The contract carries an average annual cap hit of $2.8 million, which is about half of what Islanders captain John Tavares makes per season. It’s also less than the contract of Mikhail Grabovksi, Nikolai Kulemin, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. It’s a certainty that Okposo will be getting a new deal at season’s end, and $5 million-plus per season seems like a lock.
However, the Islanders have a number of factors to consider. When this season ends, they’ll have seven players heading for UFA status, including alternate captain Frans Nielsen, who is an incredibly underrated part of New York’s success. In addition to Nielsen and other UFAs, the Islanders will also have to consider new contracts for RFAs Casey Cizikas, Ryan Strome and Scott Mayfield.
Current projections have the Islanders slated to have more than $18-million in free cap space next season. Re-signing Nielsen, Cizikas and Strome, even at their current salaries, would eat up more than $4.5 million of that. The safe bet would say their salaries could total as much, if not more, than $6 million. That leaves the Islanders a lot of cap space, but who knows how much money Snow has been given the go-ahead to spend. And none of this is to mention defenseman Travis Hamonic could be on the way out come this summer which could clear some extra room. Okposo would fit for a few years without much issue if Snow has the green light to spend to the cap ceiling, but that could pose bigger problems once John Tavares inches towards UFA status in 2018-19.
But, should he leave this coming July, does the risk of keeping him outweigh the reward? There’s no doubt there are teams who would be willing to offer the Islanders a healthy return for Okposo — think picks and a prospect were a bidding war to start for his services. Veteran Antoine Vermette netted the Coyotes a first-round pick and prospect defenseman Klas Dahlbeck at the deadline last season, Jaromir Jagr was worth two picks for the Devils and Andrej Sekera landed Carolina a pick and a prospect. Okposo would almost assuredly net the Islanders at least something in that range, if not more.
If the Islanders do deal him, though, they immediately lose a big part of their offense and a potential game-changing talent down the stretch as they inch closer to the post-season. While the Islanders haven’t been as hot as the Lightning, they still play in the same wide-open Eastern Conference and a hot playoff can turn into a Stanley Cup final berth. Is it worth the return to send Okposo packing with that in mind? That’s for Snow to decide. So while everyone talks about Stamkos, keep an eye on Okposo. This could very well be the biggest decision of Snow’s tenure as Islanders GM.