It’s absurdly early to suggest that the Edmonton Oilers may be heading for a goaltending controversy, but it’s not too early to say that backup goalie Anders Nilsson is pushing designated starter Cam Talbot for playing time.
Nilsson starts vs Caps
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) October 23, 2015
Talbot got the final two starts of the preseason, and when he sat against the Dallas Stars in favour of Nilsson after playing the Oilers’ first two games it was really more like he’d played four in a row. Nilsson was brilliant in Texas, though, so when he got another start just three games later it wasn’t a huge surprise, particularly given that it was the second night of back-to-back games.
Tonight’s start against Washington is the first real surprise start of the year for Nilsson, who has now been the Oilers’ best player in both of the games that he has played.
“We have confidence in both of them, and more importantly their teammates have confidence in both of them,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said when asked about his goalie decision at his pre-game press availability. “They’re making it tough on us to decide; that’s what their job is. If we can keep two of them running and playing well, all the more power to our team.”
This time, Talbot’s run of consecutive games played stopped at just one, even though he was excellent (28 saves on 29 shots, 0.966 save percentage) in a win over the Red Wings on Wednesday, a win in which he was named first star.
Making long-term goaltending decisions on the basis of two games is a ridiculous idea. However, it’s also fair to say that if ever there was a time for Nilsson to shine, it’s right now. He’s played so well in the preseason that McLellan didn’t hesitate to spell Talbot at times. Now Nilsson has played so well in those outings that even when Talbot doesn’t need a break he’s an option to play, as he is tonight against the Capitals.
For Nilsson personally, there are two key factors at play here.
First, the Oilers’ goalie situation hasn’t settled into a rigid hierarchy. Talbot was brought in as the designated starter and has played very well, but he doesn’t have a long history in the role and so the coach has incentive to keep his options open and little obligation to run Talbot like an established 65-plus game No. 1 goaltender.
Second, the old ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’ line applies. Nilsson is playing for a new team, and while he has a long-term track record which would be inadvisable to ignore, all that he’s done since coming to Edmonton is play brilliantly. From McLellan’s vantage point, that makes it easy to give him starts.
Continuing his strong run of play now would allow Nilsson to prevent the Oilers’ goaltending from crystallizing into that really well-defined one/two relationship with Talbot. It would establish him as a legitimate contender for minutes, preventing him from being pigeon-holed as a backup goalie.
The true measure of goaltending comes over the long haul, not over these short runs of games. But goaltending is also path-dependent, and goalies who play well in the early going tend to be the only goalies who get a chance to build long-term track records in the NHL. Having Nilsson play well is valuable for the Oilers, because it gives them two legitimate options, but it’s also vitally important for Nilsson. If he is to push past the backup designation, he has to do so right now.