I am not sure if he will make the Devils roster this year, but one thing seems to be certain. Marcus Nilson can tell a good joke. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
The Devils have brought three players (as of today) to their training camp on a tryout basis. Adam Mair, who John profiled yesterday, Shane Owen a goalie who is likely fighting for a spot in Trenton or Albany, and former NHLer and recent Swedish Elite League scoring leader: Marcus Nilson.
Nilson, a former first round pick of the Florida Panthers in 1996 (20th overall drafted behind current Devil Dainius Zubrus-15th) has played parts of ten seasons in the NHL with the Panthers and Calgary Flames. After leaving Calgary following the 2007-2008 season he played in the KHL for one season and in 2009-2010 he joined the Swedish Elite League team Djurgardens IF Stockholm where he led the team and league in scoring with 51 points (24 goals/27 assists). He is now back to earn a roster spot in the NHL. Per Rich Chere at NJ.com he also wanted to come to a team that could win.
I just wanted to give it another shot to play in the league," "If I did I wanted to come to a good team. I've heard many good things about this organization. It was an easy decision, I guess."
Nilson may seem like a longshot to make the Devils out of training camp and he is viewed by many as insurance in the event that the Devils younger players (Adam Henrique, David McIntyre, Jacob Josefson to name a few) are not ready for NHL action yet. While that thought is partly true, I think that there is room for Marcus Nilson on this roster, and I will explain why after the jump.
While he was productive last year in the SEL, (a competitive league whose level of difficulty is slightly less than the KHL but much higher than the AHL per BehindtheNet.ca) , it is unlikely that NIlson produces that well at the NHL level for any team. Nilson, besides his scoring title in the SEL last year also represented Sweden in the 2010 World Championships. The team, while not having near the level of talent the Olympic team had, still had a number of NHL and NHL quality players on the roster. With that in mind Nilson played about 15 minutes per game for Sweden and scored goal 1 and had 1 assist in 9 games. Sweden captured a bronze medal in the tournament.
At 32 there isn't a ton of upside with Nilson, but there might be a specialized role he can play with this Devils team. Where you ask? The penalty killing unit. The chart below details Nilson's ice time distribution over the course of his NHL career.
Looking at that time distribution you can see how his career has unfolded. As a young, promising first round draft pick in Florida he played on both the power play and penalty killing units. As his career progressed you see the gradual shift of his minutes head to the PK unit. It gets to the point that once he was a regular in the Calgary lineup he was one of the primary penalty killing forwards on his team settling into a role as a 3rd line winger.
In his last season in the NHL (2007-2008) he only played 47 games and averaged barely 10 minutes of ice time per game, the lowest of his career. The available Quality of Competition/Quality of Teammates from 2007-2008 on both even strength and the penalty kill don't provide that favorable of an impression of him during that time either, as he often faced the lowest level of competition with the lowest level of teammates. Looking at his GVT ratings above, he didn't hurt the team but he wasn't exactly helping them either. I think you can look at two factors as to why his last season in the NHL went so poorly. The first as Nilson explains himself to Rich Chere was his relationship with the then-coach of the Calgary Flames, Mike Keenan:
"I actually had one more year left on my contract (with the Flames)," he said. "It was a combination of a lot of things. I wasn't playing at all. I guess me and (Mike) Keenan didn't see eye-to-eye at the time. And money. I don't exactly know how the deal was structured. The (KHL) was a good opportunity for me."
It wouldn't be the first time Keenan didn't get along with a player, right? Another factor might have been a knee injury that plagued him in the 2006-2007 season. Additionally, in December of 2007 he had a concussion and missed 6 games. When he did come back he had limited ice time, dressing in only 24 of Calgary's remaining 46 games (he also only dressed in 2 of the 7 playoff games), and at the end of the year mutually agreed with Calgary to transfer his contract to the KHL.
Do I think Nilson is going to go back to playing the way he did in 2003-2004 when he was a factor down the stretch and in the playoffs for the Flames? It's unlikely. However I do think it wouldn't be shocking if his experience would earn him a roster spot on the Devils this year. After all, the Devils have a lot of PK coverage to make up with the departures of Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer and perhaps Nilson can contribute a minute or more per game to the PK. His dGVT, especially in 2005-2006, gives me some hope that he can perform as a checking line winger if he is healthy. If nothing else, I think he can contribute to the team more than Adam Mair can, and John explained why yesterday. Just don't expect him to play center that often as he wasn't that effective in the faceoff circle. In his last two full NHL season his faceoff win percentage was 45.4% in 2005-2006 and 46.2 in 2006-2007. (in 2007-2008 he had a small sample size of only 41 faceoffs which resulted in a 51.2% faceoff win percentage) That said, I would rather he not take any draws next year, especially in the defensive zone.
- Nilson, smart and gritty, has been hampered by knee issues. Even when the 30-year-old was healthy, coach Mike Keenan was reluctant to deploy the versatile Swede (who, in the 2004 post-season, had memorably hooked up with Shean Donovan and Ville Nieminen to form the vaunted Here, There & Everywhere line).
Smart? Gritty? Sounds like a possible Devils role player to me....
So now it's your turn. Do you think Nilson makes the team? Could he be a part of the PK unit? Leave your thoughts below!