Okay, so it’s a done deal. Frans Nielsen is a Red Wing for the next six years. The contract is a tough pill to swallow for most fans. He’s 32, turning 33 in April. It’s a very “Red Wings” type of move, but I’m here to try my best and talk you away from the cliff.
To be clear - I can’t justify six years for a 32-year-old center. Players at that age don’t typically get better. So yes, that’s ugly. I would have happily taken less term with more AAV, but the team had other plans. The team needed center depth, and Nielsen has proven to be a solid second-line guy. Of course, many Wings fans are knee-jerking with the “Stephen Weiss 2.0” reaction. I understand, I feel the same way, but I am trying to look at this from a different perspective. Here’s a look at Nielsen’s HERO Chart:
As you can see, he performs at a second-line level across the charts. He’s strong with generating and suppressing shots. When you take a look over at the Isles fanbase, more specifically, Lighthouse Hockey, they did nothing but sing praises for Frans Nielsen:
Though he became a full-time player during the Isles' worst year, he immediately became an essential two-way center for the next eight seasons, spanning two incredibly team-friendly contracts. That time included 606 regular season games with 119 goals and 230 assists (and an unfathomably clean 112 PIM), plus 24 playoff games with four goals and six assists.
He turned 32 in April, meaning his highest earning opportunity coincided with the years when athletes decline.
But he is still very good, was important last season and would've remained important for the foreseeable future. Losing him is significant enough that the Islanders made their biggest push with him among their three unrestricted free agents.
Nielsen was an all-situations type of player. A guy who definitely fits the Red Wings mold from top-to-bottom. He was in the top-three possession players for the Isles, and performed at an impressive rate even when they were going through a very difficult time finding success in the NHL. Dan from Lighthouse had a pretty great article on him, and the impact he had with the Islanders:
Replacing Nielsen would mean having to find another player - or, more likely, players plural - capable of contributing in all of the ways he does. Whatever number Nielsen wants, signing him would probably be cheaper (and certainly faster and less frustrating) than identifying and paying a bunch of replacements.
The biggest concern is that with the final signings on the cards for the Red Wings, there might be some younger guys who could end up pushed off the roster. That’s a serious issue, no doubt. Another aspect that I cannot butter up for you. All I can say is that we have to deal with it for another year. That means no Anthony Mantha, unless something happens - That’s just my opinion. The Red Wings should not be done making moves, and no, I don’t mean sign another free agent. They need to make a trade happen. They need to right this defense. As it stands right now, Nielsen is essentially your replacement for Pavel Datsyuk, which is a huge downgrade even with the difference in age.
So, to recap, the Red Wings signed a good player to a contract that is too long. He’ll contribute for at least a few more years, which acts as a stopgap because it’s very likely that in three years, you’re looking at a full-on rebuild. Hell, they could suck next year, but we’ll see what happens. The Red Wings were fully invested in Nielsen, and had scouted him thoroughly. For now, I’m happy to have Nielsen on this team, and I’m sure we’ll all warm up to him when we watch him center players like Tomas Tatar or Gustav Nyquist.
More on Frans Nielsen over at The Hockey News:
If Denmark had their own version of a Swiss Army knife, it would be Frans Nielsen. He does a lot of things really well and is an extremely versatile player. Name the situation, and Nielsen can play it. He’s great in both zones, especially on the defensive end, he can kill penalties and he’s very effective on the powerplay. Very underrated, but – and it’s a big but – giving a 32 year old six years is crazy. Detroit isn’t getting this version of Nielsen, they’re getting a worse one, and paying a premium for it. He’ll age better than someone who’s more physical, but this deal will be an albatross one day.
A great visual from Dominik Luszczyszyn:
Important thing to note in Dominik’s analysis is that Nielsen will age better than someone who is focused on physical play. As I said before, this isn’t a deal you expect to be a steal over six years, you expect it to be a three-year stop gap into a different hockey team... One that should be contemplating a rebuild.