I've been sold on Robert Nilsson ever since he scored in his first ever game with the Oilers. There's no doubting his skill set, nor his ability to see the game like a top-flight forward, yet he finished below both Cogliano and Gagner in scoring last season. However, if you look a little closer, you get a better understanding of how effective the kid really is.
At the beginning of the season, Nilsson was able to win a top-6 spot on the team, playing RW beside Torres and Stoll. Now, knowing how last season went for those two former Oilers, it's not hard to guess how Nilsson's first month went. After five games he was sent down to Springfield, before being called up on November 2.
This time around, Nilsson felt the effects of the MacBlender. He struggled to find his way as he had stints on all 4 lines, and by his 15th game, had only put up 4 points.
Something clicked when Fernando Pisani came back. Nilsson's numbers took off from there, as he started to see time with Horcoff-Penner, and Cogliano-Brodziak. But when he was put on a line with Pisani and Gagner, Nilsson woke up. He went on his first points streak of the year, putting up 10 points in 10 games. He clicked with Cogliano and Gagner on the 2nd unit PP, and managed to have success alongside Pisani, somewhat of a legitimate shooter.
Nilsson put up 9 points over the next 23 games, as he found himself playing alongside Kyle Brodziak on the third line. Nilsson clearly needs skilled players to thrive, and without Horcoff or Gagner to play with, he struggled to put up numbers.
On January 18, as the Oilers were being spanked by the Carolina Hurricanes on a vital eastern road trip, MacTavish finally put Nilsson on a line with Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. At this point, he had 23 points, Gagner had 15 points, and Cogliano had 18. From here, Nilsson only put up 18 more points over the next 33 games, but his presence alongside the two rookies helped those two really take off (Gagner would put up 39 points, and Cogliano 27 over the last 33 games)
Nilsson added an element to that line that went unnoticed. He was someone that gelled perfectly with both players. His quickness and passing helped Cogliano put up a slurry of goals, while he was the only guy on the team other than Hemsky who could think at the same level as Gagner, and the two were magical together in the offensive zone. His presence was what really pushed that "kid line" to the forefront, and although he didn't put up the same amount of points as the other two, it was clear to see that he was a key figure in almost every goal they scored.
Not only was Nilsson an effective offensive player, but his presence was felt defensively as well. At +8, he led the team in plus/minus, compared to +1 for Cogliano and a terrible -21 from Sam Gagner. I remember that one overtime game versus the Blues when Nilsson made a key sprawl across the neutral zone to block a breakaway pass, before helping to set up Cogliano and Gagner down low for what would be Cogliano's 3rd OT winner in a row. Nilsson got no press for the move, but it was integral for us winning the game. It exemplifies what he brings to the team. Whether it be points or steady defensive awareness, Nilsson was always contributing
Let's see how the Desjardins numbers worked out for Nilsson.
Robert Nilsson was even better than Ales Hemsky at even strength, putting up 2.37 ESP/60 in his first full NHL season. He played with a -0.01 QC and a -0.08 QT; this yielded a ΔQ of -0.07, a literal disadvantage compared to Hemsky's 0.00.
What also sticks out is how much of a playmaker Nilsson is. He had 1.84 ESA/60, which puts him 6th in the entire league, ahead of guys like Hemsky, Savard, and Datsyuk.
Now, Nilsson didn't get anywhere near the powerplay opportunities Gagner did, and spent the entire year on the second unit. So we won't know how good he could be until he gets to play with the likes of Penner, Hemsky, and Gagner on the top unit. Even then, I think it's safe to say with his skillset and hockey mind, he'd be putting up huge numbers.
For next season, I'd look to have Nilsson play hefty minutes at even strength. He only played around 11:07 at ES a game last year, and I think with his production, that needs to go up. Also, with such a high ESP/60, he should get some time with legitimate scorers (like Cole). He ought to be playing around 12:30-13:00 a night at ES, and 2:00 a night on the PP.
As a second-line player with his 2-way capabilities, playing 15 minutes a night isn't too much to ask out of Robert Nilsson, in my mind the unsung hero of the Oilers' late-season push.