Anders Nilsson has been a backup goaltender for his entire NHL career. With the New York Islanders, who drafted him, he played for a season behind Evgeni Nabokov. In Edmonton, he backed up Cam Talbot with the Oilers. Then, with the Buffalo Sabres, he backed up Robin Lehner.
Nilsson called signing in Vancouver an “easy decision” because of how much the Canucks expressed their desire to sign him. You have to think the possibility of out-battling a fellow long-time NHL backup in Jacob Markstrom for a starting role had to have been a factor. There are only 31 starting jobs in the NHL and only so many of those jobs are legitimately up for grabs.
Unfortunately, Nilsson’s first year with the Canucks did not go as planned. He played in 27 games with an ugly .901 save percentage, while Markstrom firmly grasped the starting job.
A new season presents new opportunities, however. After Markstrom struggled against the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes, Nilsson got the start against the Tampa Bay Lightning and excelled. He’s now started three games in a row, winning all three while allowing just five goals against. His .943 save percentage is up among the league’s elite.
Of course, we’re talking about very small sample sizes here. Keith Kinkaid, of all goaltenders, currently leads the NHL in save percentage, to give an example of how a small sample size can throw things out of wack.
There’s no denying, however, that Nilsson has out-performed Markstrom over the first few games of the season. While the defence in front of him have helped with some big shot blocks, Nilsson has also made some sterling saves on big chances.
It’s tempting to look at Nilsson’s performance and think that he’s “figured it out” or that something has “clicked” for him. Perhaps you could connect his hot start with new goaltender coach Ian Clark or with renewed confidence from his gold medal at the World Hockey Championships.
Perhaps something has changed for Nilsson, but it’s far too early to tell. The issue is, Nilsson has had hot starts in the past, as early as last season.
Nilsson was lights out for the Canucks in October last season. He earned shutouts in two of his first three starts and finished the month with a stunning .943 save percentage. Coincidentally, that’s the exact same save percentage he has now.
In fact, October has seemingly always been a good month for Nilsson. In his 13 career games in October, Nilsson has a .931 save percentage, with three of his four career shutouts coming in October.
Everything fell apart for Nilsson after October, as he gave up goals early and often. December was his worst month, as he posted an ugly .871 save percentage and 5.16 goals against average across four appearances. It’s no wonder that Travis Green lost faith in him and gave him minimal starts as the season progressed.
So far this season, Nilsson is earning himself a little more rope. As Green has said multiple times, he doesn’t know much about goaltending, but does like goaltenders that stop the puck and doesn’t like goaltenders that don’t. As long as Nilsson keeps stopping pucks, Green will keep giving him starts.
Regular readers of PITB will know that I have an odd theory about Nilsson: if he lets in a goal within the first five minutes, you might as well pull him immediately, but if he goes the first five minutes without a goal against, he’s about to have an excellent game.
The data doesn’t quite bear that out. Certainly, Nilsson has performed better in games where he doesn’t allow a goal within the first five minutes, but that seems like a truism, if not begging the question.
In games where Nilsson didn’t allow a goal in the first five minutes last season, he had a save percentage of .915. That’s above league average, but not by much. In games where he did allow a goal in the first five minutes, he had a save percentage of .859.
While that’s a pretty big difference, my theory mainly hinged on Nilsson excelling after making it through five minutes without a goal against. Nilsson had multiple lousy games in that scenario, so my theory doesn’t hold up.
When I looked into the numbers, however, I did notice one oddity. Nilsson allowed a goal against in the first five minutes in 8 of his 24 starts last season. In one of those starts, he actually allowed two goals against in the first five minutes. Weirdly, that ended up being one of Nilsson’s best starts of the season.
It was a game against the Los Angeles Kings, and it started very poorly. Nilsson gave up a goal on the first shot of the game from a bad angle just 23 seconds in. Three minutes later, the Kings struck again on the power play and it looked like the game was going to get away from the Canucks.
But that was it. Nilsson shut the door for the rest of the game, finishing with 30 saves on 32 shots. Meanwhile, the Canucks’ power play, with Brock Boeser at the left faceoff circle for the first time, came to life and scored two goals enroute to a 3-2 win.
Subtracting that game from the other seven starts in which he only gave up one goal in the first five minutes gives Nilsson a save percentage of just .847. Clearly, the solution to the problem is for Nilsson, when he gives up a goal less than five minutes in, to immediately allow another goal against. The data doesn’t lie!