Stars Bolster Their Depth with Nihlstorp
The Dallas Stars bolstered their depth yesterday by signing Swedish goaltender Cristopher Nihlstorp from Farjestad. The contract is a one-year, two-way deal, meaning he’ll have a chance to either back up Kari Lehtonen in Dallas, or split time with Jack Campbell in Austin.
Nihlstorp is the third goalie from the Swedish Elite League (SEL) to sign an NHL contract in the last 15 days, joining Viktor Fasth (Anaheim) and Niklas Svedberg (Boston) as top-flight Elitserien goalies preparing to make the leap overseas.
This deal didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve personally been pretty high on Nihlstorp since August of 2010, when I first saw some video of him. He hovered in the low 100′s on my Top-150 Prospects Rankings until I pushed him up from 96th to 85th overall in May, mainly due to my hunch that he would be earning some kind of NHL/AHL contract.
Sure enough, the Stars locked him in, and now he’s a much more viable long-term prospect.
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Nihlstorp has a similar frame and functionality to that of another former Farjestad goaltender, Jonas Gustavsson. Not only are both goalies considered to be lanky (long arms and legs) with quality reflexes and instincts, but they were also both mentored and refined by one of Sweden’s top goalie coaches, Erik Granqvist (Farjestad’s goalie/video coach).
Granqvist played a major role in not only developing Gustavsson and Nihlstorp into “NHL-caliber” goaltenders, but Henrik Karlsson and Alex Salak as well.
Nihlstorp split time with Salak in the 2010-11 season en route to an Elitserien Championship. He posted a 2.18 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 23 games, then posted a 1.60 GAA and .944 SV% in six playoff games.
Cristopher followed up that campaign by posting a 1.90 GAA and .928 SV% in 45 regular season games this season, carrying the label of the team’s undisputed starter. In the playoffs, he posted a 1.80 GAA and .938 SV% in seven games. He suffered a scary eye injury during the playoffs, but fortunately it wasn’t anything too serious. He even rocked an eye patch for a little bit.
So with two full seasons as one of the Elitserien’s best goaltenders, the 28-year-old from Malmo developed his game as the prototypical late-bloomer. He was sought after by a few NHL teams last summer, but for unknown reasons, he elected to spend one more year in Sweden.
Whether he wanted to or not, staying put clearly paid off, and now he’s truly ready to make an immediate impact in North America.
Just like the Ducks and the Bruins, the Stars made a real keen move by signing Nihlstorp. Like Fasth (30), he is mature and experienced at 28, and has been playing at the highest level in Sweden for nearly four seasons.
Furthermore, the Stars have a significant advantage in terms of transforming him into a successful AHL/NHL goaltender due to their goalie coach Mike Valley. Valley not only speaks Swedish, but he played in Sweden while developing his own game as a former pro. That experience will go a long way in helping Cristopher make a smoother transition over the next few months.
Richard Bachman is still a restricted free agent, so it’s unclear what the Stars have planned for him. If he’s re-signed, it’s probably going to be a two-way deal, so that both he and Nihlstorp can duke it out in training camp to earn that backup role. Regardless of who wins it, the guy that ends up in the AHL will have chances all season long to earn a recall.
That’s what happened last season with Bachman and Andrew Raycroft, and if you ask me, it’s a terrific way to structure an organization’s goaltending depth chart. This insures that every start is earned, and that no goalie becomes complacent with their role.
If you’re asking me for fantasy advice, or to project what might happen, I won’t be surprised if Nihlstorp ends up as Lehtonen’s backup at some point next season. Maturity and size are advantages for Cristopher, and those could go a very long way when all is said and done.
And while I see many similarities between Nihlstorp and Gustavsson, I don’t see the transition being nearly as difficult for him.
In that regard, the most important component would be the stylistic changes Nihlstorp undergoes between now and October. In Dallas, Nihlstorp should retain the essence of his current Swedish style under Valley’s guidance. Mike’s personal experience playing in Sweden leads me to believe the transition process is likely to be managed quite effectively.
In Toronto, Gustavsson elected to work with Francois Allaire, and there was a much more significant alteration to Gustavsson’s overall game and style. When this happens, certain elements of a goalie’s game can erode or be coached out of them. With Nihlstorp, I’m not worried about that happening. He will be allowed to play the same way he has for the last two years, with only minor adjustments made where they’re deemed most necessary.
Furthermore, Nihlstorp is on a two-way deal, which means he can actually spend some time honing his skills and getting comfortable in the AHL. This is a luxury Gustavsson did not receive when he first started his career with the Maple Leafs, and as I have said numerous times, I think it really damaged his ability to play with more consistency over the past two seasons.
Of course it’s important to realize every goalie is completely unique in their development path, but on a general level, I see Nihlstorp transitioning in a much more successful manner than Gustavsson. Obviously there’s much less pressure in Nihlstorp’s case, but it’s only natural that I compare the two goalies; they both developed into NHL-caliber goalies in the same Farjestad program, and under the same goalie coach (Granqvist). They both have similar frames, and they both had similar upsides in terms of skill and overall talent.
To learn more about the entire process of Nihlstorp signing with Dallas, from the scouting process to the logic of the acquisition, I spent some time chatting with Valley yesterday afternoon. Below is a transcript of part of our conversation.
—[ DISCUSSING THE NIHLSTORP DEAL WITH VALLEY ]—
JG: The first I heard about you guys signing Nihlstorp was from Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News. In his article, he mentioned that you had played a significant role in recruiting him. Can you talk about that process, and maybe some of the steps you took to get him into a Stars uniform?
MV: “Well the first part is that we were looking at all of the potential European goaltenders that may be available. As you do all the time, you always want to be aware of who’s out there and what guys are doing. Cristopher has played very well in the Swedish Elite League, and obviously our scouts over in Europe had seen him play and had given us great comments and feedback about him. I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Erik Granqvist his goalie coach in Farjestad and talk to him. He had glowing remarks about Cristopher, and spoke very highly of him not only as a goaltender, but as a person. He’s a highly motivated kid that really wants an opportunity to show that he can be playing at the best level in the world. I had an opportunity to do some video work on him, got a feel for how he played. Our management spoke to a lot of coaches and contacts that we have in Sweden, and every comment that we got back came across really strong, and it was an opportunity we wanted to jump on in terms of trying to signing him.”
JG: When you say “get a feel” for a goalie when you’re doing video analysis, what specifically are you looking for when you know that Nihlstorp has played on the larger ice surface throughout his career? I mean, how do you correlate or compare that to what you might expect to get from him on the smaller ice surface, and against AHL and NHL talent?
MV: “That’s a great question, because it’s definitely a challenge. It’s a different game, so what you do is you look at his traits — how he’s built, the style that he plays, the mannerisms that he has in net, the technique that he displays — and you try to come to your own conclusion of how it would translate to a North American style of play. My personal opinion is that it’s easier to adjust when you go from the larger rink in Europe to the smaller rink in North America, as opposed to going from the smaller to the larger rink. Cristopher is going to come over for development camp in the beginning of July, so he’ll get a lot of time on the ice, and I’ll get to know him and his style a little better. From there we’ll put together a game plan and create some goals of how he can adjust as quickly as possible.”
JG: I get frustrated sometimes because I hardly get to see these goalies in Sweden, and they’re all such tremendous prospects. But I had the chance to talk with Niklas Svedberg last week and I asked him this same question. We’ve had three Elitserien goalies come over in just the last two weeks…what is it about the SEL that makes these goalies so darn viable as solid AHL and NHL goalies?
MV: “I think there are a number of different things you can look at. But if you look at Cristopher’s case, he’s a 28-year-old goaltender that has played very well in the Elitserien the last couple of years. Often it takes goaltenders time to develop their game to the point where they are ready to play at the AHL/NHL level. Sweden has a great league and system that allows then time to continue to develop even at the age of 26 or 27. It’s not until an NHL team feels that they’re ready to come over and play in the AHL or challenge for an NHL job that they actually do come over. So I think that’s one of the advantages; you have guys that are mature and have played pro hockey for several years. The other thing that you can look at is the coaching the goalies are receiving both on and off the ice starting at a young age. Many Swedish and Finnish goalie coaches are doing an outstanding job. These goalies have the luxury of having a full-time goalie coach by their side, just like our NHL goalies do, so that really helps with their development as well.”
JG: I’ve learned over the last few years that GM’s and coaches hate the idea of over-playing or over-exposing their starters. They want to see that workload limited to 60 or 62 games. Vokoun just signed with Pittsburgh, and one reason given by the Pens was to limit Fleury’s workload and raise the competitiveness in the crease. Is that one of the reasons why you guys decided to sign Nihlstorp? Like, maybe he’s not going to push Lehtonen right away, but whatever role he earns in camp, it just ups the competitiveness of Stars goaltending?
MV: “Absolutely. You need competition at every position, and goaltending is no exception. There are so many things that can happen during the season with injuries, so you always need to be confident with the depth that you have within your group. The league is too good to not have solid goaltending, not only with your starter, but also with your backup and even your call-up guy. It’s such an important thing, so the competition has to be healthy. You always hear that phrase ‘healthy competition’ but it’s so true. It just ups everyone’s performance, and that’s what ultimately helps your team get better.”
JG: What kind of working relationship do you have with Joe Nieuwendyk and what kind of role do you play in terms of drafting or signing goalies? I’m always curious about these things, and how each team manages their systematic approach to goalie depth and development. So how does it work for you with the Stars?
MV: “I feel really fortunate because we have a really tight group here in Dallas. It starts with Joe, and how he runs an organization, how he treats people with so much respect, and how he trusts the people he has put in place. So whether it’s Joe or Les Jackson or anyone else in the front office, all of these guys are fantastic people that really utilize the group that they have around them. I feel lucky that I can be involved in conversations with our pro and amateur scouts. They come to me and ask opinions and vice-versa; I can go to them and ask their opinion on certain goaltenders. It’s just a really good supportive staff that we have here. I try to do everything I can to bring them as much information as possible on goaltenders inside and outside of the league, and I’m honored they’ve shown a lot of trust in what I consider to be a real solid and structured plan for all of our goalies in the organization.”