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Scrivens vs Nilsson: The Battle for the Backup Spot

When the dust settles at the end of training camp, who will get the spot at the end of the bench?

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of comments in the post game report from last night got me to thinking about the training camp competition to be the backup to Cam Talbot. But I guess before getting to far into answering that question it might be worthwhile to first ask, "Is Talbot absolutely the opening night starter?" If the answer to that question is no, then any look at the men potentially tending goal for the Oilers this season becomes much more muddied. And of course it’s possible that Talbot could have a camp bad enough to make Oilers management nervous about sending him out as the team’s starter on opening night, but it seems like a safe bet right now that the man Peter Chiarelli acquired to be the team’s starter will in fact be the starter when the puck drops on October 8th. So for now let’s assume that how it all plays out.

Which leaves us with the backup position; will that job go to Ben Scrivens or Anders Nilsson? Scrivens you’re no doubt already familiar with, he’s the goalie who provided the Oilers with AHL calibre goaltending for most of last season. Nilsson, who signed a one-year deal with the Oilers this summer after one season in the KHL, is much more of an unknown to fans in Edmonton. These are the team’s options for a backup to Talbot. After one night of pre-season action who’s the most likely candidate for the backup role?

In a perfect world training camp would be about finding the players most deserving of a roster spot. We don’t live in a perfect world and that isn’t the reality of training camp though. Decisions about who stays and who goes are made based on a variety of factors - Does the player have to clear waivers? What are the cap implications of keeping Player A over B? - that have nothing to do with what happens on the ice. How a player performs is usually a factor but it’s far from being the only factor, and more often than not there isn't much a battle at all once you consider everything else.

So looking at Scrivens and Nilsson, is there anything to consider off the ice that might separate the two, making the race a little easier to handicap? Unfortunately for me, there really isn’t. The salary cap isn’t affected at all because both are on one-way deals worth more than the buried contract limit of $950k, so the Oilers cap hit is exactly the same - $2.35M - regardless of which one stays and which one ends up playing in Bakersfield with the Condors. And both would have to clear waivers before they could play with the Condors so there is no easy solution there either.

Sticking with waivers for a minute, is there a chance that the Oilers would be willing to expose either in hopes that they get claimed, ridding themselves of an undesirable contract at the same time? Since they just signed Nilsson I’ll guess that they want to hold on to him for the time being. Scrivens makes $2.3M though and wasn’t very good last season, maybe they’d be happy to "lose" him through waivers. I guess there’s always a chance but right now this seems somewhat unlikely. If Talbot was more of a sure thing, then losing one of these two might not be as much of a concern. The same would likely be true if Laurent Brossoit was a little bit closer to NHL ready. Right now though neither of those is true, so questions like "What if Talbot pulls a Scrivens?" and "What if someone gets hurt?" are probably enough to make the team want to keep both if they can.

So if the Oilers don’t want to lose either then maybe the right question to ask is, if either were placed on waivers would there be a team willing to make a claim? For the same reason that the Oilers might have wanted to waive Scrivens - he makes $2.3M and wasn’t very good last season - is why teams probably wouldn’t be lining up to claim should he land on the waiver wire, at least not unless they’re looking at him as a potential injury replacement; in which case the Oilers likely wouldn’t make him available because losing him is undesirable.

Nilsson might be interesting to a number of teams around the league as a prospect, but the team claiming him would still need him to clear waivers before they could assign him to the minors so he’s not really a prospect to them. The only reason for a team to make a claim on Nilsson would be to keep him in the NHL, presumably as a backup. How many teams are going to place a player with 20 NHL starts ahead of their current backup? Like I said before, there’s always a chance, but I’d be surprised if the number is higher than one, and that might even be high.

So for those keeping track at home here’s a quick summary of the off-ice factors: the cap implications are a wash and the Oilers could lose both through waivers which would suck but probably won’t happen. So what does happen then, as was asked before, who’s the most likely candidate for the backup role? Like it or not, the answer is Scrivens, as it should be.

Scrivens might not be a player that a lot of fans have faith in but it’s almost certainly his job to lose at this point. He’s got a longer history in the NHL and has shown that he can handle the role of a backup. He’s also the higher paid of the two, and even though the cap is exactly the same regardless of which one stays, the default in the NHL tends to be to keep the higher paid player unless there is a really good reason to send him to the minors. If Scrivens can demonstrate that he’s even remotely capable of handling the backup job then he’ll be the one left standing in the end.

What works in Scrivens’ favour though, maybe more than anything else, is the length of training camp. With just eight games there is only so much ice time available for another option to present itself. If this were about discussion about the blue line, the team could play all involved in five or six, even seven games; with the goalies though that’s simply impossible to do. Talbot will get his fair share of the pre-season starts and Scrivens and Nilsson will split the rest down the stretch. So in the end, unfortunately for Nilsson, this camp isn’t so much about him landing a job with the Oilers as much it is about him showing Oilers management that he’s an actual option should Scrivens repeat the mistakes of last season or an injury occur to one of the guys in front of him.

And as is usually the case, there isn’t much of a training camp battle after all.