The season began with high expectations for Robert Nilsson. I was as guilty of this as anyone else; I expected "Continued high-level play, but against tougher opponents. Big statistical improvements 5-on-4." My favorite quote, just for irony's sake, came from McKeen's 2008-09 Yearbook, where they said, "appears to have finally figured it out".
This past season was a disappointment; he bounced in and out of the lineup and dropped from 41 points to 29. His 2MM/yr contract has gone from being a bargain to an overpayment, and Nilsson's already tenuous hold on a roster spot has gotten weaker, particularly with the acquisition of the much more well-rounded Patrick O'Sullivan.
But now he's probably better than I (and others) have been giving him credit for.
Consider, for a moment, his splits. Nilsson missed five games with a concussion in the middle of January; let's use that for a reference.
- Pre-Concussion: 36GP - 6G - 7A - 13PTS, -4
- Post-Concussion: 28GP - 3G - 13A - 16PTS, +5
It is fair to ask how much of his offensive resurgence was due to his own efforts and how much was due to Sam Gagner's improved play, but it is good to see that he finished the season on a stronger note than he started it. Nilsson also had a much better year on the powerplay this season than he did in 2007-08; but that wasn't nearly enough to compensate for his drop in even-strength offense; going from 2.37 PTS/60 to 1.22 PTS/60. Let's break down where he lost those points, using BehindtheNet.
- Goals/60: .53 -> .38 (-28%)
- First Assists/60: 1.15 -> .69 (-40%)
- Second Assists/60: .69 -> .15 (-78%)
Last season, I was quite confident that the high ratio of primary to secondary assists for Nilsson was an indicator that he still had offensive growth. This year though things went in the opposite direction; while he had non-trivial losses in every category, his level of secondary assists went from middling to non-existent. That cost him roughly 8 assists; had Nilsson scored second assists at the same rate as the year previous, he would have recorded 37 points.
This isn't to say that he didn't take steps back this season, just that those steps back aren't as spectacular as a quick look at the numbers would make them seem. He's still largely a one-dimensional player; he needs to be sheltered at even-strength to experience success, but if he's placed in that situation again I would expect him to bounce back next season.
None of this is to say that Nilsson shouldn't be dealt. Patrick O'Sullivan, Sam Ganger and Andrew Cogliano are all superior players. and the Oilers need to restore some balance to the forward corps; there's a need to move out skaters needing shelter and bring in complete players, and Nilsson should (and likely will be) a casualty of this neccessity. It is to say that the talent is still there, and it would be surprising if the numbers didn't follow at some point.