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?
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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:
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YearGPGAPTS+/-5v5 PTS/605v4 PTS/60QCOff. ZSRel. 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.
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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).
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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.
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In short: let Nilsson get hot a little while longer. Than maximize the return.