On Friday night, Anders Nilsson took a sterling record into a game against the Washington Capitals. He’d been perfect in the preseason and the Oilers’ best player in both of his regular season starts, and was steadily playing his way into competition with Cam Talbot.
Then he allowed six goals on 17 shots and became the first pulled goaltender of Todd McLellan’s tenure as coach.
McLellan was asked in his post-game presser on Friday whether Nilsson was a victim of what happened in front of him.
“Yeah, I think he was,” he agreed. “You could say now getting one big save at any given moment may not have made a difference, but it might have earlier, but by no means is it an indictment of his play. We were sloppy around him for a lot of the minutes.”
It’s both a diplomatic answer and a fair one. Given the way Edmonton’s defence, and in particular its top pairing, collapsed against Washington it’s pretty hard to hang the loss on the goaltender. It would also be kind of a silly thing for the coach to do if he plans to use that goalie again in the not-too-distant future.
Even so, it’s tough to miss the caveat. The NHL average in shootouts the last few years has seen goalies turn aside roughly two out of every three shots they face, with the really great ones (Marc-Andre Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist) stopping three out of four. However bad the defensive breakdowns were, they weren’t all breakaways and some of the responsibility for Nilsson’s performance rests on Nilsson’s shoulders.
The Long-Term Track Record
Nilsson’s season-by-season work over the past five years looks like this:
- 2010-11, SEL: 31GP, 0.918 SV% (partner David Rautio had a 0.904 SV%)
- 2011-12, AHL: 25GP, 0.921 SV% (partner Kevin Poulin had a 0.912 SV%)
- 2012-13, AHL: 21GP, 0.899 SV% (partner Kevin Poulin had a 0.904 SV%)
- 2013-14, AHL/NHL: 21GP, 0.899 SV%/19GP, 0.896 SV% (partners Ken Reiter/Evgeni Nabokov had 0.897 and 0.905 save percentages, respectively)
- 2014-15, KHL: 38GP, 0.936 SV% (partner Emil Garipov had a 0.933 SV%)
There’s a mix of good and bad there, but it’s worth noting how he compared to his teammates. He went back and forth with Poulin, who at the age of 25 is a pretty run-of-the-mill No. 3 goalie. He wasn’t good in the NHL. His KHL season was excellent but he wasn’t obviously better than his partner Garipov, either.
Nilsson is big, he’s relatively young, and he’s shown flashes in Europe and in the AHL. There might be a player there. On the other hand, he’s also been quite poor for long stretches in the AHL and he hasn’t proven anything in the majors. His track record lends itself to multiple interpretations, and so it’s vital that he establish himself early as a legitimate major-league goalie.
He’s started well, but one bad game against Washington has obliterated much of that progress; he’s now 1-2-0 with a 0.902 save percentage on the season. The final paragraph from yesterday’s post on Nilsson applies as well today as it did when he was riding high 24 hours ago:
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.
Another bad game or two would make it hard for McLellan to do anything other than lean on Cam Talbot. More than that could well put Nilsson’s job in jeopardy; the Oilers have both Ben Scrivens (who, we should note, surrendered five goals in his first AHL game) and Laurent Brossoit waiting in the minors and either could plausibly be the club’s backup goalie in the near future if Nilsson opens the door.
It perhaps isn’t fair, but these early games matter a ton for Nilsson. He hurt himself with a bad performance against Washington, but he needs to bounce back and quickly. His NHL position isn’t secure beyond this season; it isn’t even secure for the duration of this year.