SUN Hockey Pool

Nilsson stretching leash?

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

Robert Nilsson was conspicuous by his absence.

While the Edmonton Oilers winger was well within his right to skip yesterday's optional practice at Rexall Place, it seemed an odd choice for a player trying to get back in the good graces of his head coach.

Then again, it may do him some good to stay away for a day.

"He had a workout last night after the game and it was a no-strings-attached optional for him (yesterday)," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "The only thing I'll say about it, is that sometimes it's a process with Bobby. We all know how talented he is, but at times he struggles with the expectations, the professionalism and the work ethic.

"We're going to help him work through it and this is another example of that."

Nilsson, 23, is currently in the doghouse.

He was called out and benched by MacTavish last week for a lack of effort and competitive drive. Nilsson has four goals and six assists in 29 games this season. Last year he finished with 10 goals and 31 assists in 41 games.

"I think it's a function of how much you are getting out of your game, what you're capable of and it's a percentage of what your efficiency is and what your productivity is," MacTavish said.

"Whether you're a young guy or a veteran, everybody's game needs maintenance. Your game seldom comes looking for you. You have to find it and it's just a case of realizing where you are relative to your ability and then putting the work in to find your game.

"If you do that, you have an ally in the coaching staff and we'll help you through it."

Acquired in the Ryan Smyth trade two seasons ago, Nilsson's tenure with the Oilers has always been a bit turbulent.

Last season he was sent to the minors at the beginning of the year, only to come back and become one of the Oilers most dynamic players.

This season Nilsson has shown glimpses of the form he displayed in helping the Oilers make an improbable charge late last year, but has been unable to recapture it.

However, it's his seeming lack of desire to recapture it that has him in MacTavish's bad books.

"There are some guys that struggle - and he's not the first guy," MacTavish said. "But it is correctable and there is a process for young players. He's played 150 games in the league and it's something he's going to have to address much like another player would have to do to the skill aspect of his game. Fortunately for him, he's a young player and he's got time to learn."

The Oilers are not adverse to allowing players to work out of a slump, but they feel, at times, that Nilsson doesn't put enough effort into rediscovering his game.

Opting out of yesterday's practice may have been an example of that.

"I've stopped taking those things personally a long time ago," MacTavish said. "It's incumbent on the individual to do the things necessary to make him a better hockey player."


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