SUN Hockey Pool

Perfect time for Nilsson's awakening

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- The National Hockey League lifestyle is something every potential player dreams about.

Money. Fame. Adulation. A free pass to the front of virtually every line.

It's as good as it sounds.

There's only one catch: the more time you spend enjoying the NHL life, the less time you're likely to spend in the NHL.

It's a balance that Oilers' winger Robert Nilsson has sometimes struggled to keep level during a four-year career that's fluctuated between flashes of brilliance and, more often, frustrating mediocrity.

Despite speed, vision, creativity and hands that most players would kill for, Nilsson, has barely been able to keep his head out of the minors. How good could he be, asked critics and supporters alike, if he ever totally applied those amazing God-given skills?

COMES FROM WITHIN

It's a question that was going to remain unanswered until Nilsson finally asked it of himself.

After a long wait, it looks like he's doing exactly that.

"I'm here to produce and I haven't produced like I should," said the 24-year-old winger. "Sometimes you just have to say to yourself, 'That's enough.'

"That's what I did. And since then I've been feeling good. I have a step more in me and hopefully I can bring that out the last 30 games."

He's been bringing it out ever since the infamous optional practice controversy last December, when his work ethic and commitment were raked over some very public coals.

Mired in that frustrating mediocrity side of his cycle, and a few days removed from being a healthy scratch, Nilsson took an optional skate off, sparking a firestorm of criticism from the media, and more importantly, his coach.

"He never meant to take it off, it just sort of happened," said friend and linemate Sam Gagner, adding the furor struck a nerve in Nilsson. "It was tough for him to take. He loves being on the ice. When guys are talking about his play like that, he takes it personally. I think it was a real wake-up call for him.

"Since then he's really focused on having the right habits on and off the ice. It's affected his play in a positive way. He's been really good for us."

In the 14 games since his awakening, Nilsson has 11 points. He had three in five games after a heart-to-heart with Craig MacTavish, missed five with a concussion and returned to post eight points in his last nine games.

In short, he's been flirting with a point-a-game pace for almost a quarter of a season.

"I want to do this for the last 40 games, that's what I told myself," said Nilsson, who's making it a point to put hockey above the hockey lifestyle. "You just have to tell yourself that hockey is the No. 1 thing, it's your job.

"You have to sacrifice stuff outside (of the game) to be able to play at your potential. I think that's probably the main reason things have turned around for me."

Nilsson's had scoldings and spankings before, been demoted, benched and healthy scratched, but all the external forces in the world can't change a player's stripes. Those kind of fundamental changes, said MacTavish, have to come from within.

"The bottom line is it has to be you who decides you're going to make the changes and really commit yourself to the game," said MacTavish. "And when you're totally committed it's amazing how quick your game turns around."

LIFESTYLE CHANGES

Nilsson doesn't want to go into detail about how he lived life before, only that it wasn't conducive to being a successful NHLer.

"I'm relaxing in the evenings, getting up early," he said. "Feeling good."

And looking good.

"He's got a new commitment, the biggest thing for him is he's battling hard and getting into the corners, that's been the real noticeable change in his game," said Gagner, adding all young players have to learn the balancing act between the NHL and the NHL lifestyle.

"There's a professionalism that comes with it. You want to be enjoying yourself as much as possible, but you're not going to be enjoying yourself if you're not successful on the ice. That's the one thing you really have to focus on - there's a point of diminishing returns on the amount of fun you have."


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