When Lou Lamoriello took over the New York Islanders on May 22, 2018, he had two main goals: find a coach that could ingrain structure and defensive responsibility into a team that was historically poor defensively, and re-sign franchise center John Tavares. While he accomplished his first goal by hiring Barry Trotz, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with the Capitals, he fell short of the second goal, as Tavares left for the Maple Leafs on July 1, after taking the decision down to the wire.
After this, Lamoriello and Trotz have said that they were going to do a lot of evaluating of the current roster, to see what they had and what they need. But as we get to the halfway point of the season, the Islanders’ front office is going to have to make decisions that could have serious implications on the team’s ability to compete going forward. That brings us to Brock Nelson, who has been serving as the team’s top line center.
Nelson continues to be the streaky player he always has, with a strong start to the season before cooling down significantly. He’s been solid as a 1/1A center this season, but he’s boasting a shooting percentage well above his average. Trotz likes his game thus far, and he’s largely earned the praise, especially in recent games when paired with Josh Ho-Sang. Aside from the pace he’s on this season, Nelson’s highest scoring season was in 2016-17 when he scored 45 points.
Going into free agency, the Islanders are in a tough place with Nelson because of his ability to play center, since center depth is extraordinarily thin within the organization. The upcoming 2019 UFA class isn’t particularly inspiring for talent at center, either, which will drive up Nelson’s price while also making it more difficult for the Islanders to move on from the 2010 first round draft pick.
So what does that mean for Lou Lamoriello?
Well, the team’s over-performance based on expectations has put the Islanders in the playoff hunt. That’ll make it harder to want to move the de facto top line center for the Isles during the trade deadline, and they probably won’t unless they’re getting a center they like more in return.
In the prospect pool, Otto Koivula’s recent conversion to center has been very encouraging, but it’s still an adjustment, and the organization shouldn’t try to rush the 20-year-old into an NHL spot. Most likely, the team won’t renew Valtteri Filppula’s one year deal at the end of the season, and if they don’t re-sign Nelson, suddenly the Islanders only have two surefire NHL-caliber centers in the organization in Mathew Barzal and Casey Cizikas.
The top UFA centers this offseason are Ottawa’s Matt Duchene, who will be attracting the most attention especially if he keeps up his stellar season; the Rangers’ Kevin Hayes, who is also having a good season; and a pair of 33-year-olds in Joe Pavelski (likely to stay with the San Jose Sharks) and Eric Staal. After that, there are more bottom-six type centers such as Marcus Johansson (who played for Trotz on the Capitals but has been injured for the Devils), Colin Wilson (played for Trotz on the Predators), and the list gets less and less impressive from there.
None of the UFA centers, barring Matt Duchene, would be an upgrade on Nelson. With Duchene on the team, the Isles would have a legitimate 1-2 punch with Barzal as the 1C and they’d be bringing in someone with veteran experience, something every coach loves. However, Duchene is also enjoying a boost in production thanks to an inflated shooting percentage, and he hasn’t scored more than 60 points in his career since the 2013-14 season.
If the Islanders were to keep Brock Nelson either as their 2C or in addition to acquiring someone like Matt Duchene, what contract makes sense for Nelson? Looking at Stanley Cup winners from 2012-2018, guys who score for those teams at the rate that Nelson does tend to make around 6% of the cap, give or take. Cap hit percentages are based on the cap ceiling at the time the contract is signed, so if Nelson signs this season, that percentage will be based off the 2018-19 season’s $79.5 million cap ceiling. A 6% cap hit would be $4.77 million, a deal Nelson would certainly balk at given that he already makes $4.25 million on an RFA deal and comparable players to him make more.
If I’m the Islanders, I’m looking at Artem Anisimov’s 2015 contract as the low point to work up from. Anisimov signed for the Blackhawks in July 2015, after 412 games with the New York Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He signed for $4.55 million for 5 years, which at the time was 6.23% of the cap.
If the Islanders were to offer Nelson slightly above that, a $5 million cap hit would give Nelson 6.3% of the cap. Given his career numbers, from the team side, that seems like a fair deal.
On Nelson’s side, they will likely be looking at a different contract. Mikael Backlund signed a deal with the Calgary Flames in February 2018 for 7.13% of the cap, a cap hit of $5.35 million. However, Backlund signed that deal in the middle of a 45-point season and with him having scored 53 and 47 points in the prior two seasons — two seasons of higher production than Nelson has had in his career. Backlund has also been better at driving possession throughout his career.
A 7% cap hit would put Nelson between the $5.5-$5.6 million range. If both the Islanders and Nelson meet in the middle, a $5.25 million cap hit (or even $5.3 million) wouldn’t be bad for the Islanders. There would be room in the cap to sign Anders Lee and also go out and grab another high end talent for the team like the aforementioned Matt Duchene, or establish Nelson as the Islanders’ 2C for better or worse and try to snag Artemi Panarin or Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency.
Given the weakness of the UFA center class, the Islanders probably won’t be able to get away with just a $5.25 million contract unless Nelson decides he wants to stay. That might mean the Islanders would have to pay a premium to keep him here, likely locking him in at a cap hit near or above $6 million, limiting what else they can acquire. It would be trouble if Nelson’s camp was looking at a contract like Kyle Turris’ $6 million a year contract from the Nashville Predators, which took up 8% of the cap.
That would put Nelson at a $6.36 million cap hit, which is on the lucrative side given his production. With Nashville, Turris was a 2C they needed behind Ryan Johansen on a team with an elite winger and many elite defensemen. Is Nelson good enough to be a 2C on a Stanley Cup team? His numbers don’t really support that, which makes justifying that cap hit tough.
There are teams that can win without truly elite center depth, as long as they have playmaking and possession-driving talent elsewhere. The 2015 Chicago Blackhawks won with 35-year-old Brad Richards as their second-line center, pairing him with an elite player in Marian Hossa. That team also had depth on its third line, and the ability to separate their two stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane if they needed more firepower throughout the lineup.
It’s early in the Lee-Nelson-Ho-Sang line’s tenure, but Ho-Sang might be the type of player who can help lighten the load on Nelson for possession and playmaking and allow him to do what he thrives at: scoring goals.
The Islanders can re-sign Nelson without breaking the bank, but they should be smart about how they allocate his money, given the misspent cap space elsewhere. The Islanders can’t afford to let him walk without an equal or better replacement, and so it’ll be crucial to either acquire a replacement that can equal his production at a lower price, or wisely spend money to find a better player to take his place.
Otherwise, it’s all about finding the right number for both Nelson and the Islanders. A smart contract wouldn’t go past $5.25-$5.3 million, and would give Nelson some pretty fair comparables around the league.
Brock Nelson is one of the most interesting and frustrating Islanders in the middle of his best season yet. Is Nelson playing to his true talent level under Trotz with top-six ice time, or is he benefitting from the common contract year boost? Is he going to shoot for the stars on his next contract or take a fair deal to stay where he and his family have been since he was drafted in 2010? Will the emergence of more young players for the Islanders allow Nelson to flourish or will his contract become an anchor as he ages?
It’ll be hard to say, and that’s why it’s so crucial to play it smart so that the Islanders don’t lose yet another center for nothing without having a replacement.