When do you know on a goalie? When does a good month become a great season, and a No. 2 morphs into a No. 1 you can count on?
They are stewing on that in Edmonton this week, where upstart Swede Anders Nilsson — whose father was both a Stockholm cop and Djurgarden goalie — has rolled into town on a one-year, $1 million deal and stapled Cam Talbot’s butt to the Oilers’ bench.
Suddenly, Nilsson has started nine of the last 10 Oilers games, and has a save percentage of .922. He hasn’t given up more than two goals in any of his last five starts, and his save percentage in those games is .951.
Big guy (6-foot-5, 225 lbs), big numbers. But does he have a big future?
“He’s kind of got that Pekka Rinne look to him,” mused his head coach, Todd McLellan.
It’s been a hell of a journey for a man whose five-month old son is named Mio — no homage to ex-Oiler netminder Eddie — and wife Fernanda. The New York Islanders drafted Nilsson early in the third round of the 2009 draft, but he ran into some health problems and fell back on their prospect list. Turns out it was just a gluten and dairy problem, but in his fourth year pro they wanted him to return to the AHL.
“I played those three seasons in the American League and I didn’t develop my game as I wanted. I thought I needed … a new environment. The KHL was a little gamble, but when I look back, I am happy,” he said.
Nilsson landed on Ak Bar Kazan’s roster, where a Finn named Ari Moisinen was in charge of the goalies. “We kind of spoke the goalie game, the same way,” said Nilsson. And he was on his way, with a .936 save percentage, second best in the entire KHL.
Meanwhile, back on this side of the pond, the Islanders dealt Nilsson’s rights to Chicago in acquiring defenceman Nick Leddy. But when Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford was injured last season, backup Scott Darling filled in so well that the Hawks simply didn’t need Nilsson anymore. Chicago signed Darling to a two-year deal worth $1.175, and the Hawks dealt Nilsson to Edmonton for a college prospect.
“(Nilsson) wasn’t a hidden gem,” said Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, who scouted Nilsson as he played for Sweden at last spring’s World Championships. “The risk was, he played poorly at the end of the Worlds. That’s why some teams might have backed off of him.”
Chiarelli took over an Oilers team that had zero goaltending. He traded for Cam Talbot in a deal that sent second- and third-round picks to the New York Rangers, and signed Nilsson. Neither had ever been an NHL No. 1.
“We scouted both these players and thought they’d both be a good fit. I know Cam is better than what he’s shown,” Chiarelli said. “I was hoping on a strong 1A and 1B. We’re not quite there yet.”
Chiarelli’s plan was sound. If you can’t get your hands on a proven No. 1 — and who can? — then find two backups with some pedigree, and hope like hell one of them takes the ball and runs with it. But back to the top: How do you know when an unproven goalie might be your guy?
• Devan Dubnyk wasn’t only not good enough for Edmonton, both Nashville and Montreal moved him on before he found traction in Minnesota.
• Ben Scrivens came to Edmonton in 2014 after posting a .931 save percentage behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Today he is playing out his contract in AHL Bakersfield, tanked out with an .827 save percentage and a 5.15 goals-against average.
• Jonathan Bernier also came out from behind Quick with far more pedigree than Scrivens, and gave Toronto two decent seasons as a second tier NHL starter. Today he is in the minors as well, searching for his game.
• Martin Jones (undrafted) the third goalie spit out by the goalie factory in L.A., has won the starting job in San Jose this season. Despite being pulled last night in Calgary he has been every inch an NHL No. 1 for the Sharks.
Talbot’s play could return to the level he was at in New York behind Henrik Lundqvist, he could steal the job and sign a long-term deal in Edmonton. Or if his numbers (.889 save percentage, 3.17 goals-against average) don’t improve, he could be doing colour for Sportsnet five years from now. Who knows?
As for Nilsson, he might be good for the next week, or at just 25 years old, the next decade. He is that 6-foot-5 prototype coaches love these days.
“Ask coaches,” said McLellan, when asked about the size he prefers his goalies to be. “They prefer the ones who stop the most pucks.”