There is a reason that a lot of teams won’t draft a goalie in the first round, as in most cases, the risks outweigh the rewards.
It can take years, much more than most teams want to wait, or can afford to wait, for a goalie to develop and deliver on their first-round draft status.
Some goalies develop earlier, but for others, it takes bouncing around until they find the right situation to fully come into their own.
On his fourth team in three years after spending a season overseas in Russia, Anders Nilsson may have finally found the right situation that is allowing him to come into his own.
A former third-round pick, Nilsson was the third goalie taken in the 2009 draft class, behind Mikko Koskinen and Robin Lehner. He has taken the long road, even spending a year in the KHL, to get where he is at, which is on the brink of a breakout season.
A failed start
Since a lot of goalies take longer to develop, many makes their true impact in the league with a different organization than the one that drafted them.
In fact, only 11 of the de facto ‘number one’ goalies in the league were drafted by the team which lists them as starters.
Nilsson is no different.
After being drafted by the New York Islanders, Nilsson could not stick around the organization, playing out his rookie contract before heading overseas to play in Russia. While playing on Long Island, Nilsson posted a 9-9-2 record with a 3.05 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .898 save percentage (SV%).
The Swedish goaltender bounced up and down between the NHL and AHL his three years in the Islanders’ organization. The middle of the three years was the only one in which he remained in the same spot all year – playing for Bridgeport in the minors the whole season.
After his contract was up, Nilsson signed a contract to go play overseas with the Kazan AK-Bars of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Bounce back and a return to North America
Nilsson made his lone season in the KHL count, being named to the All-Star First Team while posting a 1.71 GAA and .936 SV% to go along with five shutouts.
Generating buzz for his performance, Nilsson’s rights were traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Nick Leddy trade. He was traded again to the Edmonton Oilers where he would play in a career-high 26 games as Cam Talbot’s backup.
At the deadline, he was dealt again and spent the last part of the season with the St. Louis Blues.
Once the season was over, he was traded yet again, this time to the Buffalo Sabres, where he played last season.
All coming together
Last season with Buffalo, Nilsson put together his best season to date, coming at somewhat of a surprise considering only four teams finished with fewer points than the Sabres.
His numbers at even strength were among the best in the league, despite facing a constant high-volume of shots.
Nilsson faced the fifth most shots-per-60 minutes (SA/60) at even strength last season, but still posted the ninth best SV%. He succeeded even more in the high-pressure situations, stopping .841% of the shots taken from ‘high-danger’ areas, good for sixth best.
Overall, Nilsson would post career-best numbers with a 2.67 GAA and .923 SV%.
But with Lehner entrenched as their number one goalie, Nilsson looked elsewhere for another opportunity to get in more than the 26 games he played with Buffalo.
If he continues on this pace with the Canucks, you can bet he will set a new career high in games played this season.
After the Canucks 6-2 thrashing of the Washington Capitals, Nilsson improved to 3-1 on the season. While giving up just two goals is generally good for your numbers, allowing them actually hurt Nilsson’s early season SV%.
Of all goaltenders who have played at least 100 minutes of 5-vs-5, Nilsson has posted the second best SV%, trailing only Malcolm Subban of the Vegas Golden Knights. He has done so while facing fewer shots per 60 minutes, nearly five less, and is ranked 27th in SA/60.
In four games played, Nilsson has allowed just three goals at even strength and just six overall. His two shutouts lead the league.
Is it sustainable?
Nilsson is heading down a path of being a respectable goaltender in the league. Play at even strength is more times than not a better sign of whether or not a player can maintain his level of success.
Taking from a small sample can be dangerous, but over the last two seasons, of all goalies that have at least 1,300 minutes at 5-vs-5, only Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price have a better SV% than Nilsson.
Vancouver has been one of the biggest early-season surprises, and thanks to the success of the Golden Knights, probably one of the least talked about.
Beating the defending President’s Trophy-winning Capitals will go a long way in getting noticed. Right now Vancouver sits at third in their division, with notable teams like the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers all behind them.
It’s still early, and so many things can change, but Nilsson’s early season performance is looking a lot like last year. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if he emerges as the go-to goaltender in Vancouver by the end of the season.
How do you feel about Nilsson’s early season performance? Should more people be talking about it or is this just a case of early season success? Let us know in the comments section below.
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