Anders Nilsson: A Shestyorkin Case Study?

Like Cam Talbot before him, Antti Raanta gave the Rangers two years of great backup goalie play before being traded for future assets. But in making the move, GM Jeff Gorton has created another hole in the lineup and will be challenged to find a competent backup for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. According to Larry Brooks, the target may be Unrestricted Free Agent and former Islanders goalie Anders Nilsson.

Nilsson is different than other Rangers goalies in that, quite simply, he is much bigger than them. At 6’6, he’s athletic but depends on his size to cut angles and challenge shooters. But he complements that size with decent athleticism as he moves well for such a big man. He’s similar to Pekka Rinne in that vein.But unlike Rinne, Nilsson has never proven himself to be a number one goalie and, to be blunt, has generally struggled as a backup.

Through his first 52 NHL games with the Islanders, Oilers and a brief stint with the Blues, he posted a save percentage of just .902 and a goals against of just a shade under 3.00. But last season, in Buffalo, he had a fairly defined role and found his stride. In 23 starts, he had a .923 save percentage (Raanta was .922 last season) and a goals against of 2.67. Many goalies, like Talbot and Raanta, really hit their stride around the age of 27 and Nilsson, who turned 27 in March, seems to be following that trend.

If that’s the case, then Nilsson should be expected to perform as a capable backup on day one with the Rangers, should he sign. 23 starts seems like a good number for a Rangers backup right now, as Henrik Lundqvist can’t be expected to give 70 starts a year anymore, and Nilsson will need to carry his improved play from Buffalo to be worthy of the number two role. But with his physical upside, his work with Benoit Allaire could turn him into a top netminder in the future – though it probably wouldn’t be in New York.

For a backup goalie, the greatest ability is often availability and performing well despite inconsistent deployment. Nilsson proved last year that he can handle that role, especially after back-to-back starts in which he stopped 24 of 25 shots in a win against the Rangers and made 39 saves in an overtime loss to Chicago in the first week of January.

“He’s been excellent whether he’s been playing or he’s not been playing,” Bylsma said of Nilsson. “He’s been ready to play well every time he’s stepped in there.”

Raanta and Talbot both thrived in the limited role and showed the ability to carry the load should Lundqvist be out for an extended period. Nilsson has shown as least the propensity for the first half of the role and if his KHL performance in 2014-15 is any showcase of NHL ability, he can perform in a longer term as well.

Of course, what should also make Nilsson attractive to the New York brass is that he should come relatively cheap. Last season, in Buffalo, Nilsson earned $1 million even. Since nobody is going to be giving him starter money, considering his inconsistencies in the NHL, a moderate raise should be appropriate. Mike Condon just signed a three-year deal with an AAV of $2.4 million, but that’s probably on the high end for Nilsson while Raanta’s previous two-year, $2 million dollar deal seems a bit low. There are a number of backup goalies (Budaj, Montoya, Hutchinson, Khudobin, and Hammond) who all fall between $1 million and $1.5 million, and that’s a safe bet for Nilsson. Something like two years and $2.70 million should be the sweet spot.

The most fascinating aspect of a potential Nilsson signing is that he provides a template to set fair expectations for prospect Igor Shestyorkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2014. Though when Shestyorkin will make the jump from the KHL to the NHL is anybody’s guess, it’s even harder to say how well KHL success as a goalie translates to the NHL. Generally speaking, the elite KHL goalies are guys who have made their careers in Europe or Russia and rarely are legitimate NHL prospects amongst the best.

Dating back to the 2008-09 season, just two goalies who have spent significant time in the NHL—Semyon Varlamov and Kari Ramo—have finished in the top-five in save percentage in the KHL. Not even Sergei Bobrovsky did it, though he did have sixth- and seventh-place finishes.

While it’s hard to define Nilsson’s limited NHL experience as “significant” to date, he posted a .936 save percentage to finish third amongst all KHL goalies in the 2014-2015 season. Last year, Shestyorkin finished fourth with a .937 save percentage. The parallels there are striking, even if the two goalies’ styles are vastly different, and it’s interesting to think that part of the appeal to Nilsson is that he can help Gorton and Allaire better understand how to measure Shestyorkin’s KHL production and sustain his growth.

If nothing else, Nilsson’s development may serve as a cautionary tale.
“Five years ago, the 6-foot-6, 229-pound Nilsson was a raw youngster shuttling between the AHL and New York. By 2014, with his progress stalling – ‘I kind of didn’t develop the way I wanted to,’ he said.”

If I didn’t have a good year that year, I wouldn’t have been able to come back,” Nilsson said. “I developed a lot as a goalie that year. That year has definitely helped me a lot in my development. I don’t think I would’ve been here if I didn’t make that step.”

Perhaps Nilsson’s stalled development after arriving in the NHL at age 21 will cause the Rangers to be more patient in their handling of Shestyorkin, who is 21 now. The first-hand experience will certainly be influential.

With Lundqvist aging, the next New York backup is going to be tasked with a higher anticipated workload than Talbot and Raanta and, potentially, competing for a top role should he outlast the King. Nilsson’s athletic upside, along with Allaire’s tutelage, makes him a name to keep an eye on this summer. Two years from now, he may be asked to do more than just spell Hank—he could be the bridge between the King and the Rangers’ next number one if he can’t lock down the job himself.

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