Robert Nilsson: To Trade Or Not To Trade

Jonathan Willis
January 04 2010 12:21PM

Robert Nilsson, abandoned for dead by most people following the Oilers (including me) at training camp, has come alive since returning to the lineup from injury, to the point where he’s been one of the Oilers best offensive players over the last dozen or so games. The question is this: does he have a long-term future with this team?

We can’t look at Nilsson’s recent run of brilliance without also looking at his early season stretch of futility. Here are his numbers on the season, split by that lengthy stretch outside the lineup:

  • Before: 12GP – 1G – 3A – 4PTS, -12
  • After: 15GP – 5G – 5A – 10PTS, +2

There’s quite a contrast in those two stats lines. In the first sample, we see a player struggling in both ends of the rink, and in the other we see one of the rare Oilers exceeding expectations. So which is Nilsson?

The simple answer is that he’s both. There’s a similar split we can look at: the difference between 2007-08 and 2008-09. In the first instance he was the best member of the ‘Kid Line’, the only one who could be trusted to some degree defensively, and a guy who could play in a sheltered role and dominate. In the second, he was a borderline NHL’er, drifting in and out of the line-up. This inconsistency has been a Nilsson hallmark since he first broke into the league with the Islanders, showing flashes or disappearing for stretches. When he’s on, he’s a tremendous player: gifted offensively and capable of playing a solid two-way game. When he’s off, he’s something else entirely.

Nilsson’s numbers over his Oilers’ career look like this:

Year GP G A PTS +/- 5v5 PTS/60 5v4 PTS/60 QC Off. ZS Rel. Corsi
07-08 71 10 31 41 8 2.37 2.66 10th 53.6 6.1
08-09 64 9 20 29 1 1.22 4.59 7th 55 3.4
09-10 27 6 8 14 -10 1.72 4.57 10th 47.5 1.4

5v5 PTS/60 is Nilsson’s scoring rate in 5-on-5 situations. Anything over 2.00 is high-end territory, while anything below 1.50 is fairly sad. Nilsson’s been both over the course of his career, and while I fully believe he has the talent to hang out in the high end of that range, I don’t believe he can do it consistently.

5v4 PTS/60 is Nilsson’s scoring rate in 5-on-4 situations. The first number (2007-08) on that list is atrocious, while the latter two are very good. I think that the first number is the aberration, and that the latter two reflect Nilsson’s true range; I’ve thought that since the end of 2007-08, actually, which was why I thought he had room to improve on that effort. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on his even-strength offence falling away.

Off. ZS shows the percentage of offensive/defensive zone face-offs in the offensive zone. Nilsson has consistently been among the team leaders in this category, and is again this year, although Quinn seems to care less about getting players out in particular zones than MacTavish did. QC is a measure of Quality of Competition, and the number reflects Nilsson’s ranking among regular forwards on his team. It’s a combination of how opposing coaches view his line and who his coach lines him up against, and we can see that Nilsson generally plays against poor players. MacTavish went for that matchup with Nilsson, and in Quinn’s case it seems to be a result of opposing coaches not worrying about Nilsson. From those two statistics (provided by Gabe Desjardins, as with the rest of this stuff) we can see that Nilsson’s been put in a position to succeed during his Oilers career, generally at the expense of guys put in a position to fail (Reasoner/Stoll/Torres in 2007-08 and Horcoff/Brodziak/Moreau last year).

The final number on the list is relative corsi, adjusted for ice-time and strength of team. Corsi is the sum of all shot attempts for and against, and reflects territorial advantage. Nilsson has positive but relatively modest totals here, but when we consider the difficulty of his minutes (lots of offensive zone starts, lots of weak opponents) those totals look vanilla.

It is my opinion that if Nilsson continues on his current run, Steve Tambellini should move him at the trade deadline. The Oilers have an abundance of small forwards, and they have an abundance of forwards who can’t be relied upon to play difficult minutes without a baby-sitter, and some of these guys need to be cleared out. Nilsson certainly has some value to a team short of these guys, but with Cogliano and O’Sullivan already on the roster (I’ve excluded Gagner because he’s significantly ahead of both the previous duo and Nilsson) and with all of Omark, Eberle and Paajarvi-Svensson joining the team in the near future and all meeting one or both of my earlier caveats, there’s no room for him.

In short: let Nilsson get hot a little while longer. Than maximize the return.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#101 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
January 04 2010, 10:46PM
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Woodguy wrote:

Jonathan,

You said:

"I also doubt O'Sullivan's all that tradeable right now, certainly not for more than 50 cents on the dollar."

So you get 10 games of Cole and a 4th rounder?

Make that trade immediately.

In terms of value of contract vs. performance POS is the worst or 2nd worst on the team (tight race with thecaptainethanmoreau)

Its addition by subtraction. His 2.9M of cap space is worth much more than the player, especially on this cap challenged team.

A mistake was made, un-make it and move on.

My favorite game: Cap space > players.

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#102 Woodguy
January 04 2010, 10:50PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Jonathan,

You said:

"The fact is that we can't know which is happening; all we have to guide us is past history, which suggests that Nilsson will get hot and then he'll get cold again."

That is true.

What also may be true is that there has be re-occurring "personal issues" that happen to coincide with his decreased play and view from the PB. Also rumored to be the reason the Isles let him go so cheap. 1st rounders usually have some cache, but he had family ties to the organization and the Oilers have always like reclamation projects.

If that is true, and the "issues get resolved" then a change in long term performance can be achieved.

On the outside we don't know if he has done that. I bet the management does though, and that is probably the crux of their decision.

Helluva player when he's on, no question.

This team could use more wingers, if they don't have to find 2RW right away, that will remove 1 hole they need to fill for next year.

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#103 Racki
January 04 2010, 10:59PM
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Agreed... Trade! His value is high. Plus the Magic man will pull a rabbit out of our collective butts any moment now before disappearing again.

Seriously though, I have always been overly critical of Nilsson, and I can appreciate that he is one of few players that is playing well right now, but given the traffic jam of small skill forwards we'll have here next year, I'm going to single him out as a guy that should be moved.

They'll need to save salary any way they can, and his and O'Sullivan's would be two that would free up a respectable amount. Remove Pisani by default (at the very least, a pay cut), and with any luck Moreau as well, and Staios and there's $11.2M available from 5 bodies.

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#104 Woodguy
January 04 2010, 11:05PM
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OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F wrote:

My favorite game: Cap space > players.

My favorite game is hockey.

Doesn't seem to be O'Sullivan's though.

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#105 Woodguy
January 04 2010, 11:25PM
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@OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

He gets constant calls for his head because he was the GM of the team for 10 years and they were mediocre at best during his reign.

We were promised a better team once the cap kicked in, and aside from getting into the playoffs on the last day because Vancouver lost (then going on the most magical run in NHL history), the Oilers have not made the playoffs since the cap came into place.

They have actually gotten worse each year.

The man who was the architect of this disaster is Kevin Lowe.

Instead of being fired for his results, he gets kicked upstairs/promoted to President of Hockey Operations.

10 years of futility and failure is not reason for promotion.

If Tambo answers to him, he is still involved.

As a season ticket holder I'm getting really tired of paying all this money for crap and promises of a better future that never comes.

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#106 Milli
January 05 2010, 07:56AM
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Trade Nilson, ya, he's good today, but come on, this has been the debate for 3 years, he's good, he's bad, TOO INCONSISTANT. Trade or waive POS, that kid is gutless, heartless and can't hit the net. I actually hope Nilson can keep it up, I just wouldn't put any money on it, remember BreX???????

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#107 rickithebear
January 05 2010, 09:58AM
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Hemmertime wrote:

Omark put up Markus Naslund #'s in his last year of Swedish Elite league. He has spent most of his career playing against men, not boys at junior level. Hes in his first year in the KHL and is in the top 25 in scoring. 7 points less than Jiri Hudler. Only knock against him is he is small... other than that he seems exactly what we need. A boom or bust prospect.

Omark was 5'10" 172Lbs in SEL site.

P. Kane 5'10" 179LB Cogliano 5' 10" 180Lbs

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#108 Zamboni Driver
January 05 2010, 11:36AM
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Too bad you can't do those clever pretend FIXED for this article....

Brilliance??!!

How about..."...Nilsson’s recent run of better...

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#109 Zamboni Driver
January 05 2010, 11:37AM
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@rickithebear

Omark was 5'10" 172Lbs in SEL site. P. Kane 5'10" 179LB Cogliano 5' 10" 180Lbs

So that would make all of them about 5'8" in real life.

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#110 Biowolf
January 05 2010, 11:36PM
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There is a guy who is hot and cold. There are 10 guy who are cold all the time. Get rid of them first.

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