SUN Hockey Pool

Nilsson is odd man out

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

There have been times when Robert Nilsson looks like a blossoming star, and makes his acquisition for a local icon look like a stroke of genius.

Then there are the other times.

Currently, Nilsson is on the outside looking in as the Oilers get set to open their NHL campaign tomorrow against the Calgary Flames. Barring an injury, he's not expected to be in the lineup.

"We're in that spot where it's not always straight merit based on the two weeks of training camp who gets to start," said Oilers head coach Pat Quinn.

"Robert's camp got better as it went on. I like his skill, but a couple of other guys have played well. At the same token, I'm not sure I want to keep him out long.

"We're still at that 'let's see' stage, trying to establish who makes us a better team with whatever skill set they bring in. But everybody knows he has a very high level of puck-handling ability, skating and he thinks pretty well too, although it's somewhat risky.

"I would say that risk element is what might be keeping him off the chart right now."

Last season, Nilsson, 24, was constantly in and out of coach Craig MacTavish's doghouse. His talent is unquestionable, but his inability to use it on a consistent basis was frustrating for the coaching staff.

This year, Nilsson got off to a slow start at training camp, then began to show glimpses of his ability. He had his best game in a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Winnipeg, playing with Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. Yet the performance was still not good enough to warrant him a spot in the lineup for the final preseason game of the year.

Nilsson finished the preseason with a goal and three assists in four games.

"I felt I had a pretty good camp," Nilsson said. "I feel good. I thought I had a good summer of practice and I'm just now waiting for a chance to get going."

Acquired in the deal that sent Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline in 2007, Nilsson finished last season with nine goals and 20 assists in 64 games. The campaign proved to be disappointing.

"It's frustrating a little bit right now, but all I can do is work hard and try not to be negative or anything like that," said Nilsson. "I don't know what the coaches are thinking. I can only go with what he's been telling us, that everybody has a clean slate and he's not looking into the past and he's only worried about what's going on right now."

Nilsson's fate with the Oilers may have been sealed when the club signed Mike Comrie just prior to the start of training camp. Comrie fills a similar role with the club and will start in the position originally pencilled in for the Swede.

Had Marc Pouliot and Fernando Pisani not been injured to start the season, there was possibility the Oilers may have sent Nilsson to the AHL.

"I want to play, and I'm waiting for the chance," Nilsson said. "This is a lot different than last year. Last year, we had the team practically set up before camp. This year there were a lot of spots up for grabs and everyone had to prove themselves.

"But you have to stay positive. If I'm negative, I'm not going to get anywhere."

DEREK.VANDIEST@SUNMEDIA.CA


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