Anders Nilsson earned a two-year contract from Vancouver. ©2017, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Season with Sabres ignited goalie Anders Nilsson’s NHL career

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 on Friday prior to the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-2 win against the Sabres.

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 sat out Friday inside 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.

The Sabres are so banged up, they summoned defenseman Taylor Fedun from the Rochester Americans on Friday morning just so they had an extra player.

“We got to get some bodies up here just in case something happens,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “Feds had a really good, strong camp.”

Still, Fedun, who played 27 games last season, was scratched. The Sabres used rookie defenseman Victor Antipin to replace Josh Gorges, who’s day-to-day with a lower-body injury. The Sabres scratched Antipin, who spent his entire career overseas before this season, four straight games before Friday.

Housley wanted Antipin to work on his defending.

“He’s come a long way in that regard with a good stick position and body position, and he’s got to use his speed,” Housley said. “That’s one asset he has, just to close quickly and create that body position early … and also just making that first pass out of the zone.”

The Sabres also scratched forward Zemgus Girgensons, who’s day-to-day after blocking a shot early in Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss in Vegas. Winger Seth Griffin moved in after sitting out two games.

The Sabres also lost center Jacob Josefson to a lower-body injury in Sunday’s 3-1 win in Anaheim. Josefson is sporting a walking boot on his right foot. To make room for Fedun, the Sabres place Josefson on injured reserve.

In other injuries news, Housley said center Evan Rodrigues, out since hurting his hand Sept. 29, should start skating soon. Rodrigues is week-to-week.

The Amerks have signed defenseman Stuart Percy, a former first-round pick, to a professional tryout.

Percy, 24, played for the Sabres’ AHL affiliate Friday.

Toronto selected the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Percy 25th overall in 2011. He played 12 games with the Maple Leafs, compiling three assists.

He played 37 games last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the AHL club Sabres GM Jason Botterill ran as part of his duties as Pittsburgh’s associate GM.

Sabres winger Kyle Okposo played his 600th NHL game.

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