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Oilers choose their goalie duo

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

All Anders Nilsson wanted was a shot.

Actually, 53 of them. And he stopped them all.

The 2009 third-round pick of the New York Islanders was eyeing a return to North America after spending the 2014-15 season in the KHL with Kazan Ak-Bars. The goaltender posted very good numbers, including a 1.71 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 38 games. In 20 playoff games, Nilsson was 13-7 and had a .935 save percentage and 1.54 GAA.

Photo by Steve Hiscock / Saskatoon Blades

The Oilers traded for Nilsson on July 6, sending prospect Liam Coughlin to Chicago, who owned the goalie’s rights.

“I wanted to come back. That was my goal when I went to the KHL,” said Nilsson. “It was my big goal to come back to the NHL and give it another chance. But, more importantly, I wanted a fair chance. I wanted a good chance. I didn’t just want to go to any team. I wanted to go to a team that really believed in me and where I felt I’d get a fair chance of making the roster. When Edmonton traded for me and they explained their situation, I was willing to come here right away.”

The Lulea, Sweden native wasted no time in agreeing to a one-year contract with the club who traded for him. The promise to Nilsson was that he’d be in a three-way competition when training camp opened. He’d have the opportunity to earn a spot and that’s what he wanted. Nilsson was able to do what he set out to do, as the Oilers finalized their roster on Monday and the 6-foot-5 giant goaltender was on it.

“I’m very happy to be a part of this team and this organization. It was my goal when I signed,” he said. “I’m very happy they believe in me and they believe in me enough to put on their roster and be here for their opening night. I’m very happy to be with the Edmonton Oilers.”

Nilsson, 25, competed with Cam Talbot and Ben Scrivens throughout training camp, and did just about everything he could do. The netminder turned away all 53 shots he faced in the exhibition games, including a 25-save shutout performance against Minnesota.

Nilsson and Scrivens were in direct competition with one another. The latter showed very well in camp and pre-season himself, but the Oilers elected to go with Nilsson in the end and assign Scrivens to AHL Bakersfield.

“I wouldn’t say I was nervous because it was out of my control,” Nilsson said of waiting for the team’s decision. “I can’t control what their decision is going to be and what they’re thinking. All the way through camp I was just trying to control what I can control and prepare myself as good as I can and go out there and practice and work hard and prepare myself for every game, and when the game comes go out there and play my game and try to stop every puck. That was the thing I was working on – controlling what I can control.”

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

Nilsson’s business-like practice habits and playing style impress Oilers goalie coach Dustin Schwartz.

“He’s quietly competitive,” said Schwartz. “He’s got a good demeanour about him. He brings his intensity to the ice on a daily basis. I think that his level of focus and attention to detail with his game and understanding where he needs to improve his game has been outstanding as well. His willingness to learn and share his ideas, I think make him a very good communicator. He’s got some good ideas and I think he’ll be a good fit.”

Nilsson displayed the strengths of his game in pre-season. He, obviously, is a large and athletic netminder. He seems to have an almost laid-back style of play, letting the pucks come to him instead of overreacting to shots. Nilsson says he has worked on that, because when he starts moving too much that’s when he gets beat.

“I like his calmness and his composure,” said Schwartz. “I think there’s always a fine line between casual and composed. I think he treads on the side of composure more frequently, which is important. I think there is a quiet internal battle there. He’s always competing, he never quits on pucks. I think he’s becoming more and more aware of his positional game, which with his size really benefits him.

“When he’s in position he’s tough to beat. Then you add in a little bit of athleticism for a man who is 6-foot-5 and he gives himself a chance to make some of those desperation saves as well. I think his demeanour is a good one. From a player perspective, I think he’d be an easy guy to play in front of. You’re never going to be challenged to the point where he’s out of control. I think he’ll be just fine.”

Nilsson will attempt to readjust to the North American game, after spending time overseas. He has played a total of 23 NHL games, all for the Islanders, in his career. In those games, he has an .898 save percentage and 3.05 GAA.

With Scrivens heading to Bakersfield and Nilsson and Talbot holding down the fort in the NHL, the Oilers feel they have strong organizational depth at the position. 22-year-old Laurent Brossoit is their top prospect at the position and his 22-year-old counterpart Eetu Laurikainen is an intriguing depth option in the minors as well.

“Organizationally, we made that decision to go with (Talbot and Nilsson),” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “Ben is still part of the organization. We consider our depth very strong in the organization right now, with Laurent and Eetu and that type of stuff. We feel we’re five deep and we like that.”

Nilsson was a bit of an unknown coming into camp and he made a good enough impression to stick around. Talbot was a much bigger name who came into the organization after Edmonton sent a second, a third and a fifth-round pick to the New York Rangers.

Photo by Steve Hiscock / Saskatoon Blades

Talbot is expected by many to take the reins as Edmonton’s number one goaltender. As Henrik Lundqvist’s backup with the Rangers, Talbot had to make the most of his limited opportunities. Last season, he did just that. With Lundqvist out due to a vascular injury, Talbot went 16-4-3 during his stretch of action. He posted a 2.16 GAA and .929 save percentage, while keeping the Rangers afloat in the East.

Talbot has an opportunity with the Oilers he did not have in the Big Apple.

“I think he’s ready for the chance to go after it,” said Schwartz. “There’s always a bit of a transition period for somebody who hasn’t been a number one for a period of time. He was fortunate to have the opportunities last season with Henrik being out. He took the ball and ran with it. I think that experience will help him in this transition… When you’re behind Henrik, I think you’re a guaranteed number two. Here he has the opportunity to be a number one. He has an opportunity to move his game forward. I hope he can continue to grow his game in practice and bring that to the game on a nightly basis.”

Talbot, 28, finished last season with a 21-9-4 record, a career high five shutouts, a .926 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. He has a .931 save percentage and 2.00 GAA through 57 career NHL games.

Schwartz consulted with Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire this summer to get a scouting report on his incoming pupil. What he found out was Talbot has a competitive fire in him and a propensity to make big, timely saves. Schwartz said the Oilers caught a glimpse of that in their final pre-season game; an overtime loss to Vancouver. Edmonton trailed early, but managed to come back to take the lead in the third, largely due to some big saves by their goalie.

The Oilers are pleasantly optimistic Nilsson and Talbot can not only help them in the games, but can continue to push each other and compete like they did this pre-season. Competition makes them and the team better.

“I think they’re a good balance for each other,” Schwartz said of the Oilers duo. “Both of them communicate very well and have an open line (of communication), which is important to me. They’re very similar, as far as their on-ice approach goes. They’re both aware of some areas I think they need to improve on and we’re in agreement on them. They’re willing to put the work in, there’s no question. I like both of their competitive battle in practice… They have very similar personalities, and I think they have supportiveness and a healthy competition.”

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