EDMONTON – It’s taken Robert Nilsson a while, but the Little Magic Man is getting a chance to entertain NHL audiences with his offensive sleight-of-hand now that he’s added reliability to his array of tricks.
Long on offensive creativity but sometimes short on work ethic and commitment to defensive detail, Nilsson, the son of former NHLer Kent (Magic Man) Nilsson, has revamped his act with the Edmonton Oilers.
After bouncing between the NHL and the minors in his first two pro seasons, then being dealt to Edmonton by the New York Islanders in the Ryan Smyth trade, Nilsson has been one of coach Craig MacTavish’s most reliable forwards in the 21 games he’s played since his latest AHL stint.
And he’s still as dynamic as ever.
“Consistency has been an issue with me almost my whole life,” said Nilsson. “Except when I was little, 11 years old, but that’s because you’re so much better than the rest.
“Up here, you have to have consistency. When it doesn’t go your way offensively, you still have to be responsible defensively so you get the same amount of ice time.”
Nilsson, 22, has always had head-turning offensive skills – skills that prompted New York to select him 15th in the 2003 Entry Draft. In practice, he can take a puck, flip it onto the blade of his stick, toss it in the air, catch it, then pirouette and zip it into the net lacrosse-style.
What he hadn’t been able to do until he returned Oct. 31 from an eight-game demotion to Springfield was convince MacTavish he was reliable enough to keep a spot in the lineup every night.
Nilsson’s come a long way on that front. He’s had three goals and 13 points with a plus-5 rating since his return. He had just one assist and a minus-1 in five games to start the season before being sent to the minors.
“You’ve got to make a decision,” said Nilsson, who had an eight-game points streak end in a 2-1 win over Vancouver on Saturday. “What are you supposed to do up here to stay? I just have to be good defensively so he (MacTavish) feels good having me on the ice.”
MacTavish rewards defensive reliability with ice time. For Nilsson, that’s translated into an opportunity to put his talented hands to work on a line with rookie Sam Gagner and Fernando Pisani.
“He developing it,” MacTavish said. “In my mind, he’s a real important member of this team.
“If he can keep his game at this level, he’s going to have a tremendous impact on the success we have.”
Nilsson still polishes his hotdog moves at practice, but spends more time in the gym and breaking down video now.
“He’s really bought into a lot of the things that maybe previously he wasn’t as motivated to buy into,” said MacTavish. “He’s working hard off the ice. Now, he’s going through a lot video and he’s really interested in that part of it. He recognizes how important it is.
“At this level, you have to have some dimensions to your game. You can’t be a one-dimensional player or you’re never going to play that much.”
When the season began, a roster spot was Nilsson’s to lose. He did exactly that, struggling on a line with Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres until his demotion came five games in.
“A lot of times we talk about failure being the biggest motivator,” said MacTavish. “Clearly, he’s got all kinds of skill to play at this level. Why aren’t you?
“That’s a question you have to ask yourself. It becomes pretty clear when you ask yourself that question – if you’re objective enough to take the answer.”
Nilsson’s father Kent, a member of the Oilers’ scouting staff, had 688 points in 553 NHL games with Winnipeg, Atlanta, Calgary, Minnesota and Edmonton.
So, while Nilsson comes by his offensive gifts honestly, there’s now much more to his game. As a result, he no longer feels he’s one mistake from another trip to the press box or a ticket to the minors.
“Sometimes, a back-door-pass, a backhand pass or behind the back, something like that, you can’t do if you’re on the edge of getting sent down,” Nilsson said.
“That’s how it is. I feel confident right now.”