When I was introduced to Garth Snow in person, I was some blogger who asked strange but specific questions about qualifying offer minutia for obscure European prospects, so he turned to something more interesting and asked me who my favorite Islander was.
This was in the rebuild's darkest days, shortly after the firing of Scott Gordon -- the first NHL coach to see the potential in a certain Dane's all-zone awareness and speed -- and without missing a beat I blurted, "Frans Nielsen."
Nielsen was still mostly an unknown then -- this was even before his days as the most frequently rated underrated player in the game -- and he had maybe 25 NHL goals to his name. Always seen as undersized, many a veteran hockey observer could not conceive how such a frame could be counted on to hold serve against or shut down, much less outscore, the league's top centers. I defended the premise on many sites now defunct.
Unleashing this capability during Nielsen's age 24 season is the best (maybe only significant?) thing Gordon did for the Islanders.
Signing Nielsen early, to a one-way contract in 2008 that guaranteed him an NHL job for four years while paying him a paltry average of $525,000 per, was one of Snow's shrewdest budget moves. (Even though the overly humble Nielsen, to this day, says the Isles were gracious to give him a one-way deal at the time.)
I don't even give a damn about Nielsen's shootout prowess. (Okay, I give a little damn because it's impressive and makes for fantastic mythology and years of fun with the Danish Backhand of Judgment -- a term originated on this site, by the way -- from what is otherwise a part of the modern NHL I'd happily dispose.)
I Never Wanted to Stop Watching This Quiet Brilliance...
Anyway, forget all that and focus on Frans Nielsen, hockey player: The man can skate, can pass, can deke, can read the play, can anticipate, and does not quit. He's gotten so much out of his slight size that he's been as much a joy to watch as a 32-year-old making roughly $3.5 million (but just $2.75 million cap hit) as he was as a 25-year-old making a jaw-droppingly modest $525,000.
The analytics age was in its prenatal phase then with already interesting indications in Nielsen's numbers, but I didn't tell Snow that Nielsen was my favorite for any specific stat-based reasons. Nor did I say it to subtly convey to the GM, "I know what you did there, locking him up on the cheap before he knew how good he can be, you sly dog."
I said it because it was true: Nielsen is the kind of player I'm prone to love.
The player who does "the little things" behind the play that go unnoticed unless you're really watching, the player who does virtually nothing flashy outside of the shootout move yet consistently has a positive impact on the game and his linemates. The underdog who makes good, the guy who presciently understands the modern game before so many old-school dinosaurs and yet humbly goes about his way. The most demonstrative Nielsen goal celebration you'll see is a quick elation two-arm raise followed by a look to his teammates that basically says, "Guys, isn't this FUN?!?"
I love hockey. That Dane loves hockey. And he plays it pretty damn well.
Perhaps somewhere in my subconscious, during the darkest valley of the Isles rebuild with its first hand-picked coach getting the ax and a 20-game winless streak underway, I wanted to plead to Snow from my position of zero influence on the Isles GM that, whatever you do to correct course, Garth, do not give up this guy.
...Yet I Knew This Day Would Come
At the same time, there are two sides to my fan brain: The nostalgic, loyal, story-loving fan who enjoys the aspects that draw most of us to irrationally tie our emotions to the fortunes of a logo represented by millionaires playing a game; and the analytic, rational side that says business is business, good information is key to decision-making, and even your favorite players are one day more valuable to someone else -- at a higher price, basically -- than they are to the team you hold dear.
Despite my unabashed love for Nielsen's game and respect for the man, I've always reminded myself that one day he would decline, that one day his older and least productive years would coincide with his highest earning years, and that collision could easily spell his departure. The same data that showed excellence many fans couldn't see is the data that says his best is likely nearing its end.
The problem with going all analytical and cold-hard-decision-maker on aging players is that each is an individual, not a representative of an aggregate curve. So we know that Nielsen, like every other player in sports history, will get older and decline -- sooner than later, most likely -- but we don't know the year when that transition will accelerate or become problematic, and it's quite possible he'd have been really useful in the intervening years.
Last summer it looked like it might be coming sooner; then it turned out he'd battled through lingering injuries for much of 2014-15, and 2015-16 ended up being a productive rebound year.
But will it also have just been another superlative walk year? The kind of year players -- even the best "character" guys -- put in when their futures and family incomes are on the line?
We won't know even a decent hint of the answer until the decisions are long in the past.
Analyzing the Islanders every day in public -- and dealing with immensely passionate but cringe-worthy irrational fans from both "kool-aid" and "emo" extremes -- slowly chips away at the fan side of me that makes this sport and team fun to follow as a hobby. Seeing Nielsen depart from a team that doesn't have a concrete plan for what's next does more than chip...it knocks out a cornerstone.
Aside: Explaining the Danish Deity Myth
Allow me a brief tangential explanation here, which I owe to every new reader who has come to this site in the last four or so years after I stopped explaining it and wondered, "Jeez, what's the deal with the Frans worship? He's good, but he's not that good."
Which is true, but also kind of the point. Back in the day, the classically "underrated" Nielsen was completely unheralded yet those who understood came to know: he was good. Damn good. He was the perfect flag-bearer of the low-revenue, no-budget last years of the Coliseum: The Isles couldn't buy players and they couldn't attract players so they had to find gems in the rough or gems who didn't know their own talent.
It made sense to adopt him here at Lighthouse as a kind of mythical (and unexpected) god, as he was often completely overlooked yet positively and consistently effective on the ice.
This was not a "heart and soul" god nor a fourth-line "he gives it his all despite little talent god." No, this was a recognition of key skills in the modern game that were still being overlooked. (See: Hickey, Thomas.) There's a reason Nielsen's been seen by so many analytical observers across the league as underrated, and that's because the stats all hockey fans are familiar with -- goals, assists, points -- do not fully reflect his impact.
It's amusing to me to see readers and #IslesTwitter commentariat so dismissive of that impact: "Well they never got over the hump with Nielsen so how good could he have been?"
Newsflash: The Islanders have never gotten over the hump with John Tavares. They never got over the hump with Pat LaFontaine or Zigmund Pallfy either. If you want to get right to it, they only ever got over the hump with the greatest roster collection this league has ever seen, one good enough to produce an unprecedented 19 consecutive playoff series wins.
I say that not to compare Nielsen, a very good two-way player, with those three true offensive superstars. I say it to shed light on how irrelevant that line of argument is in a sport where every player needs a significant and vast supporting cast to "get over the hump" lest he end up like Joe Thornton.
And it's not that "Oh, well, we just overrate our own, either." (Sorry, I'm not going to dig up all the links from the past decade by astute analysts who don't care about the Islanders yet singled out Nielsen as a fantastic player, a player who quietly does so many good things.) It's not a homer thing. If anything, Nielsen is guilty of underrating himself, considering himself a lesser center, almost encouraging people to call him "just a third-line center" as if every NHL team has Crosby and Malkin up the middle.)
In today's NHL value on a contract is everything, and Nielsen's Islanders career was defined by giving so much more value than he received. It's entirely predictable that he would be overpaid in his first true UFA contract. It's entirely appropriate that it's someone else doing the overpaying. It's almost like taking a big UFA deal that covers his declining years completes his lifetime of selfless contribution to the Isles.
...but I still wouldn't have minded if he got that contract from the Isles. There's room in my personal fan salary cap for one sentimental hometown overpay, and Frans was it.
Back to the Tribute, Though
He came at the right time, when the Isles desperately needed a significant talent who outplayed his contract (and indeed, probably never valued his own game as much as he should have).
He also came at the worst time: A time where his biggest contributions, and his peak, coincided with the team having so few good players around him until the final few seasons.
It's been a week since he officially left, and I'm still sad, as I will be for quite some time. It's going to hurt to see the Isles without him, especially if a young center doesn't step up to immediately fill the void. It's going to hurt to see his declining years elicit angst from Wings fans focused on the length of his contract instead of as an Islander where decline would be forgiven for all of the underpaid good years he gave us.
Some fans approach sports as if every year without a championship is a failure. That's fine, that's the ultimate goal and you're supposed to say that in hockey management, etc. I approach sports knowing only one in 30 teams wins each year and the gods don't like me enough to ever make my team one of them.
So I enjoyed the hell out of Frans Nielsen for 10 years and won't apologize for putting him on a pedestal. He was a beloved and outstandingly loyal Islander. He's not the reason they didn't win it all; he's one of the reasons they were as good as they were despite so many other factors, both self-inflicted and external, working against them.