Spend enough time earning your keep in any walk of life and it’s human nature that a bit of “been there, done that” attitude can creep in from time to time. I’m as guilty of it as the next guy. It’s refreshing, then, when somebody or something actually surprises you.
In that regard, Anders Nilsson has been an eye-opener for me so far this season. The towering Swedish stopper has been hotter than a $3 pistol in his last five starts, including his last three as the Edmonton Oilers have put together a three-game winning streak after Sunday’s 4-2 win over Buffalo.
Nilsson’s save percentage in his last five starts has been .941, .977, .950, .920 and .951. Overall, Nilsson sits at .922 with an 8-7-1 record and 2.49 goals-against average in 16 appearances. He’s taken the crease from Cam Talbot, who was supposed to be the more significant acquisition this past off-season, and doesn’t look ready to give it back anytime soon.
I never saw this coming, did you? I asked that question on Twitter Sunday after the win over the Sabres and had a number of people say, sure, they knew how good Nilsson was. Good on you, but there was nothing about Nilsson’s resume that led me to believe he was capable of playing this well when the Oilers plucked him from AK-Bars Kazan of the KHL. Of course, my record on rating goaltenders is dubious.
IMPRESSIVE SO FAR
In 23 appearances over two seasons with the New York Islanders after being drafted 62nd overall in 2009, Nilsson didn’t do much to suggest he’d have a chance to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. His save percentage was .898 and his GAA was 3.05.
Now 25, Nilsson is just entering the career sweet spot for goaltenders. When I sent out Nilsson’s save percentage Sunday, I got several responses like this one:
@Robin_Brownlee Has been great but that is not sustainable.
— CamHorner (@LafondLynx) December 7, 2015
That is, of course, absolutely correct. This is a hot streak. We’ve seen this before. There’s no chance, none, Nilsson will continue to put up the numbers we’ve seen from him in these last five starts. The thing is, if the Oilers can get their defensive play sorted out – they’ve been outshot 117-88 during this three-game winning streak – he won’t have to. Yes, that’s a big “if.”
What the Oiler need from Nilsson to be competitive is a save percentage within three or four points of the .922 he’s at now – anything in the range of .915, which is about the NHL average, or slightly better. That’s do-able, and it’s a level of performance that will force Talbot to step up his game big time if he’s going to take the crease back.
What I like most about Nilsson is that he’s more than just a “blocker” in the standard butterfly mode. Nilsson plays big and uses every inch of his six-foot-five frame, but he’s also active with his hands. He battles for rebounds and loose pucks in his crease. He doesn’t wait for the puck to hit him.
THAT KHAIRA KID
I’ve been really impressed with what we’ve seen of Jujhar Khaira in the five games he’s played and I find myself wondering if he might stick around somehow even after the Oilers get healthy again — when Connor McDavid, Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov return.
Khaira, 21, skates very well for a big body at six-foot-four and 215 pounds, and while it’s a bit much to ask that he play in the top-six for any length of time as he’s doing now, I see a younger, bigger and faster version of Pouliot when I watch Khaira.
The other thing I hadn’t given much thought to until I saw an item about it in The Journal the other day is that Khaira is just the third player of East Indian descent to play a game in the NHL. That took me back to my days covering the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL in the 1980s.
Robin Bawa, who played 61 games with Washington, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim, was the first and he played on the Blazer teams I covered. Like Khaira, Bawa was a big man who could skate. In his best season with the Blazers, 1986-87, he scored 57-56-113.
That was a different time and, thankfully, all these years later I doubt Khaira will face the same kind of stupid, racist stuff Bawa did as he tries to make his way into the NHL.
“It’s obviously cool hearing the stat and all that, but at the end of the day, I feel like everybody is on the same spectrum,” Khaira said. “You want to make it regardless of race. I put enough pressure on myself as it is.”
WHILE I’M AT IT
Taylor Hall is driving the bus right now. With a goal and an assist against BuffaloSunday, he’s scored 11-17-28 in 28 games. Hall sits seventh in league scoring.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.