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Nilsson ready for his first North American campaign

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Anders Nilsson’s dream is to play in the National Hockey League. At 6’5” and 220 pounds, he’s physically developed the way any managerial team would hope to see from a young prospect. He stands strong, confident and steady in his crease, but Nilsson knows there is a long road ahead.

Although, signing an NHL entry-level contract on May 27 has the goaltender one step closer.

“I’m excited to come over here and play the full year,” Nilsson said. “It’s going to be really fun.”

As for this week’s Islanders Mini-Camp, Nilsson said it will assist in helping him make the necessary adjustments to the North American style of hockey. The European game, which is generally defensive-minded, is hard to compare to the faster-paced, smaller North American ice surface. But for a goaltender, the change in ice surface affects more than the speed of the game. All the angles which Nilsson has become accustomed to, have suddenly changed.

Islanders prospect Anders Nilsson skates during an on-ice session at Islanders Mini-Camp at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
“The bounces off the boards, the angles on the side, when they (the players) come in and shoot the puck, everything is different, even the crease is different,” Nilsson said. “That’s new for me. I have to get used to that. So it’s a matter of things I have to get used to… I just have to give it some time.”

The 20-year-old said there are a few things that he’ll have to figure out on his own, but explained he plans on leaning on Islanders goaltending coaches Mike Dunham and Sudarshan Maharaj as much as possible.

Maharaj isn’t worried.

“He has all the physical tools,” Maharaj said. “He’s already played at a high level of hockey, he’s a 20-year-old and he’s willing to make the changes necessary. He’s a workhorse. He’s got all the pieces to learn.”

In fact, his training actually started long before he arrived at camp. The past few years, he has worked off and on with Maharaj, who is trying to help Nilsson transition to the North American style.

“When you look at the Swedish goalies that have made the transition from Europe directly to the NHL, Anders isn’t in that situation,” Maharaj said. “He’s a lot younger than those guys and his style is one that is still evolving. He’s not a finished product. He’s still a prospect and he understands that, so he’s fully prepared to go through the road rather than just jumping into the fire.”

The style Nilsson plays, which Maharaj referred to as a blocking goalie, isn’t completely suited for the North American game. It gives him the fundamentals, but there are a lot of areas Nilsson will have to alter.

Islanders prospect Anders Nilsson works with goalie coach Mike Dunham during an on-ice session at Islanders Mini-Camp at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
“The blocking goalies in North America have slowly changed over the last few years, with the equipment changes and the changes in the game, they’ve become more athletic,” Maharaj said.

His transition to the North American game will be challenging, but Nilsson has already played at an elite level for many years and the past two seasons, he’s played professional hockey for Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League, which is also his hometown team.

Nilsson had an amazing sophomore year for Lulea and his statistics standout on their own. However, Swedish statistics are unique. They don’t track a goaltenders win-loss record like North American statisticians.

“It’s never been considered a stat over there," Maharaj said. "It’s never about if the goalie wins or loses because it’s a team effort. It’s something they’ve never kept track of. As a matter of fact, I called Anders and asked what his win-loss record was and he didn’t know. It’s so inconsequential to them that he didn’t even know.”

His 1.92 goals against average from the 2010-11 season was even better than the marks he posted playing for Lulea’s junior club. Combined with his .918 save percentage over 31 games, his stats were high enough to earn the Swedish goalie his first NHL contract.

“I think I’ve been better almost every day, so I think I have improved my game a lot from last year,” Nilsson said. “It was a pretty good year for me. Hopefully I can continue to get better this year.”

Islanders prospect Anders Nilsson works with goalie coach Mike Dunham during an on-ice session at Islanders Mini-Camp at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
Playing for Lulea, Nilsson split the first half of the season almost 50-50 in terms of playing time, but was called upon a lot more towards the end of the season. Finishing the season in fourth place, Nilsson played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games and helped Lulea to the SEL semi-finals.

“It was a good year for me and for my team,” Nilsson said. “We were winning and some people didn’t even expect us to go to the playoffs. So for the team, it was a good year.”

Now that he’ll be making his North American debut this October, Nilsson is excited about where his future is headed. At the same time, Nilsson is aware of how challenging it will be to earn a spot on the Islanders roster.

“It’s going to be tough,” Nilsson said. “I don’t know how many (goalies the Islanders have), five or six, and all of them are really good. So it’s going to be really tough over here, but I knew it was going to be tough before I signed. I’m aware of that and I’m just going to try to do my best and we’ll see how far it goes.”

For now, he’s going to take it one day at a time.

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