Frans Nielsen may not be the most offensively gifted unrestricted free agent about to hit the open market, but the 32-year-old pivot is among the few true two-way centers available to be had when free agency opens on July 1. That is, if Nielsen gets as far as free agency.
With how important Nielsen has become to the Islanders’ second line, it appears GM Garth Snow is going to make a serious push to lock up the center before July 1 rolls around, and with a number of free agent talent ready to hit the market, including scoring winger Kyle Okposo and fourth-line grinder Matt Martin, it looks as though the main focus for Snow is becoming Nielsen.
Newsday’s Arthur Staple reported Saturday that Snow and Nielsen’s agent, Marc Levine, have been in contact over the past few days and talks are apparently circling around a long-term deal that could see Nielsen remain with the Islanders for the foreseeable future. And given that it at one point looked as though Nielsen may hit the open market, finding a way to lock him up would be excellent for New York.
What Nielsen brings is incredibly difficult to replace and there’s no doubt his presence would have been missed. On the current Islanders roster, there isn’t a single player — save potentially the oft-injured Mikhail Grabovski — who can fill Nielsen’s shoes. Beyond his duty on the second line, Nielsen has averaged more than two minutes per game on the penalty kill. And it’s not just that Nielsen kills penalties, either. It’s how he does it, with the seemingly innate ability to drive the puck in the other direction with regularity.
There are 107 players who have skated more than 500 minutes on the penalty kill since the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, and Nielsen ranks near the middle of that pack with 572 minutes shorthanded, per Puckalytics.
Of all those players, though, only Michael Grabner has a better shot attempts for percentage than Nielsen, who boasts a mark of 16.2 percent. That’s in part due to his shot suppression — he ranks just outside the top third, on ice for 95.7 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of penalty kill time — but more so because he’s helped the Islanders flip the attack to the tune of 18.5 shot attempts for every 60 minutes Nielsen is killing penalties. And the best way to kill a penalty? Keep the puck out of your zone.
And none of this is to overlook Nielsen’s contributions on the offensive side of the puck. This past season, he scored 20 goals and 52 points before adding another three goals and six points in 11 post-season games. His goal totals have fluctuated over the past few seasons, but he’s a steady 40-point player.
Locking Nielsen up to a three or four-year deal makes sense if the money’s right. As a veteran piece who can help on both sides of the puck, he’s hard to replace, and if the Islanders have designs on making a deep post-season run or two in the coming years, Nielsen could be an important contributor come playoff time.