Footsteps at Nilsson's door

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Robert Nilsson has been in the thoughts and prayers of countless Oilers fans this summer.

As in, they think he's never going to realize his full potential and they're praying that management replaces him with someone better.

In sports bars and on tee boxes, on fan boards and radio shows, people frustrated with Edmonton's small, low-scoring offence made him a lightning rod for off-season scorn.

Every time the Oilers even thought about doing something at forward, his name came up. And never in a good way:

- Should they sign Mike Comrie. Well, he is a better value than Nilsson.

- Think they'd ditch an NHL contract in the minors? Well, there's always Nilsson.

- Should they give Rob Schremp a shot? Well, he's probably better than Nilsson.

- Not enough roster spots? Move Nilsson.

Nothing personal, they'd just rather the cap space and roster spot went to a harder worker and more consistent producer. Well, with 17 forwards fighting for 12 positions in training camp this year, there are plenty of candidates.

If he didn't hear the criticism, Nilsson can hear the footsteps.

"We have 14 forwards on one-way contracts now and they're all good," said the former first-round draft pick (15th overall in 2003).

"We have to battle hard to make an impression on the coaches, that you want to be here and play. I'm going to do the best I can to make the team and have a really solid year. I owe that to everyone, especially myself, after I wasn't too pleased with my last season.

"I feel ready to go."

And by ready to go, he means ready to stay.

But the competition has never been more fierce. While Nilsson didn't have the math exactly right, it is a log jam --there are 11 forwards on one-way contracts, plus Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano on entry level deals, plus Rob Schremp (who has to clear waivers if they send him down), plus legitimate candidates Liam Reddox, JF Jacques and Gilbert Brule on two-way pacts.

That's 17 for 12 spots.

"He's in tight," head coach Pat Quinn said of Nilsson.

"He's going to be challenged for a position. We have a lot of guys who look similar -- small and quick. And we do have cap issues here ... so somebody's going to be left on the outside. It's a hazard of the business today, with caps and the number of players under contract."

It doesn't help Nilsson's cause that of those 17 forwards, he is the sixth-highest paid.

His $2 million ticket isn't exorbitant, just high enough (given his 29 points in a 64-game season that included numerous nights in the dog house) to put him out of line with about eight other guys and low enough that a guy like Daryl Katz might consider paying it to him in Springfield.

But he'll get an honest shot to make everything right again, to prove that his instinct and creativity were merely stifled under Craig MacTavish's defensive leanings.

His leash might be shorter than most, though, given the number of bodies here and the fact he's had a number of chances already, each one resulting in a brief surge, followed by a sag, followed by a benching, followed by a solemn vow to be more forceful and committed out there.

"From what I see he has tremendous talent," said Quinn.

"Everything that happened to him last year seemed to be less than what the expectation might be for that skill level.

"Maybe this is a good opportunity, the kind of style I think we're going to be able to play might play into his skills a little bit better than it might someone else.

"He's a player of terrific skill who has to find a way to play better."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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