BUFFALO – Goalie Anders Nilsson figured after a breakout season in which he emerged as one of the NHL’s top backups, the Sabres would be interested in re-signing him.
In his first start-to-finish NHL campaign, Nilsson performed strongly, going 10-10-4 with a 2.67 goals-against average and a sparkling .923 save percentage.
Nilsson, 27, morphed into a terrific option for the Sabres, pushing starter Robin Lehner while showcasing consistency throughout his 26 appearances.
But the Sabres’ new regime – the team fired coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray after missing the playoffs – wasn’t interested in bringing back the Swede.
“Honestly, didn’t hear too much from Buffalo,” Nilsson told the Times Herald this afternoon following the Vancouver Canucks’ optional skate inside KeyBank Center.
Did that surprise him?
“Honestly, yes … I am,” Nilsson said. “But that said, it’s also the business side of hockey and they made a change. They decided to go another way.”
Instead, the Sabres inked goalie Chad Johnson, who played 45 games for them in 2015-16 before going to the Calgary Flames last season.
Other teams, however, showed plenty of interest in Nilsson, who had never been a free agent.
“It was a nice feeling to feel that teams want you,” he said. “You can almost choose a team.”
The 6-foot-6 Nilsson said he chose the Canucks because they showed a “good plan for me and showed a lot of interest right from the beginning.” He signed a two-year, $5 million contract July 1.
In Vancouver, Nilsson has a similar role to the one he enjoyed in Buffalo. He plays behind Jacob Markstrom, who, like Lehner, is a friend and a fellow Swede.
So far, Nilsson has so-so numbers – 1-1-0, 3.38 and .918 – in two games. After a 32-save shutout in his season debut Tuesday in Ottawa, he was yanked from Thursday’s 6-3 loss in Boston after allowing four goals in just 10:40.
Nilsson likely won’t play tonight at KeyBank Center, a rink he dazzled in last season, going 7-1-1.
Clearly, the Sabres mean a lot to Nilsson, who played for three teams and briefly left the NHL before settling in for a career-changing season.
“Huge,” Nilsson said of what 2016-17 did for his career. “I had a great year last year. I’m very grateful for Buffalo, to the Sabres. I really enjoyed it here. I had a great time in the city. … I like the organization. I’ve very thankful.
“I’m always going to have a special place in my heart, honestly. I was able to take some steps last year. I was able to play more consistent.”
Why did Nilsson thrive here? He said he enjoyed a close friendship and a healthy competition with Lehner, he had chemistry with goalie coach Andrew Allen and his work with a sports psychologist also paid dividends.
“Overall, I took steps in every direction,” he said.