Frans Nielsen, One of Three Puzzling Departures, Returns to Face the Islanders

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When Frans Nielsen skates onto the ice in Brooklyn for the first time Sunday wearing Detroit Red Wings colors, it will be an odd sight for most everyone at Barclays Center.

For a decade, Nielsen, a mild-mannered center from Denmark, went about his job for the Islanders, through many trying years and a few moments of exultation. He filled myriad roles on Jack Capuano’s squad with fortitude and quiet leadership.

Nielsen’s departure in July, when he signed with Detroit for six years and more than $30 million, was a surprise that coincided with the exits of Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin, two other career Islanders, also via free agency.

Without them, the Islanders are off to a rocky start after last year’s 100-point finish and their first playoff series victory in 23 years.

The Islanders, at 9-10-4, were last in the Eastern Conference heading into Sunday’s game. But after Thursday’s 3-0 victory at Washington extended a winning streak to three games, they have built some momentum heading into the game against Detroit, when they face the strange prospect of seeing their longtime teammate on the opposing bench.

“I didn’t think I was going to leave, to be honest,” said Nielsen, who was drafted by the Islanders in 2002. “I always thought we would get a deal done. But I don’t have one bad thing to say about the Islanders organization.”

Nielsen said he pushed hard to agree on a new contract, but when negotiations dragged on, he had an opportunity to talk to other teams.

“That was the first time I ever thought about trying something else,” he said. “Before that, I did not want to leave. I never even thought about it.”

Nielsen played 606 games for the Islanders, scoring 119 goals and adding 230 assists. But his contributions were always about more than pure numbers.

The Islanders miss his penalty-killing efforts. They also miss the cohesiveness he gave the lineup while alleviating pressure on John Tavares, the captain who invariably tries to carry the team’s offense most nights.

Tavares, 26, has seen many friends and teammates depart since joining the franchise in 2009, including his early mentor Mark Streit, left wing Matt Moulson and forward Colin McDonald — all of whom had close ties to him.

Tavares came to camp after September’s World Cup to greet a new-look squad. Then P. A. Parenteau, the right wing who returned to the team ostensibly to skate on Tavares’s line, was waived days before the season opener.

Tavares, who leads the Islanders with 18 points, has publicly taken in stride all these changes, including the departure of Nielsen, with whom he spent seven seasons and made three postseason appearances.

“Frans and I have been through a lot together — many ups and downs,” Tavares said. “Some great times together, some tough ones. But that’s in the past now. I don’t try to dwell on it too much. I try to focus on moving forward to growing with this group.”

For Capuano, who also coached Nielsen, Okposo and Martin when they played for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., there is a bittersweet quality to reunions like Sunday’s game.

“When you look at guys from my first year here that you have grown and developed with — not only as players but as people — it will be weird to see them on the other side,” said Capuano, who has coached the Islanders since 2010. “But I’ve always said, when players move on, you wish them well, and hopefully things they’ve decided to do is what they wanted to.”

Nielsen has by all indications fit in well with the Red Wings, who were 11-11-3 after Saturday’s 5-3 loss at Pittsburgh and who are trying to reach the playoffs for a 26th straight season.

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Nielsen and his wife, Moa, have been adjusting to life in Michigan with their newborn son. Nielsen had six goals and eight assists heading into Sunday, including scoring twice and assisting on the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Devils in Newark on Nov. 25.

His former Islanders teammate Cal Clutterbuck was not surprised that Nielsen has seamlessly adapted to wearing red and white instead of blue and orange.

“Frans embodies the guy you want to have around all the time,” said Clutterbuck, who has had to adjust without the physical Martin on his line this season. “You envy the way he goes about his business in all aspects of the game. He’s even-keeled and patient.”

Nielsen, Okposo and Martin have not elaborated on why they left. After the Islanders were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, General Manager Garth Snow spoke emphatically about how he wanted to retain all three.

Then Okposo signed for seven years and $42 million with the Buffalo Sabres, and Martin took a four-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Martin was polite and thanked the fans when he returned to Barclays Center on Oct. 30 with the Maple Leafs. Okposo’s first game in Brooklyn with the Sabres will be Dec. 23.

“You’re looking at the schedule and seeing that special game,” Nielsen said of Sunday’s game. “You’ve been knowing that day for a long time. For sure, there will be some nerves. It’s going to be really weird.

“You’ll have butterflies, like during a playoff game. I’ll need those couple of shifts, and hopefully it will settle down and feel like any other game.”

Before their sudden winning streak, the Islanders had won only two games in November. But they have a chance to reach what qualifies as .500 in the N.H.L. if they can overcome the Red Wings and the mixed emotions sure to occur with Nielsen playing for Detroit.

“I’m sure it will be just as weird for Frans as it will be for us,” Clutterbuck said.

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