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Career twists have Nilsson in the right spot with the Sabres

When he took the ice for the first scrimmage of training camp, the name on his jersey was misspelled.

By the time the second 20-minute period was underway, Anders Nilsson had a new name plate, one spelled correctly.

With is name sorted out, it was time to look at his role. The Buffalo Sabres traded with the St. Louis Blues at the NHL draft to acquire the 26-year old. Buffalo was in desperate need of a steady, solid backup to a healthy Robin Lehner. And while few goaltenders would put that on their business cards, Nilsson doesn’t really care what you call him, as long as he gets playing time and the opportunity to improve at his trade.

"I try not to think about it that much," Nilsson said about the back-up label after his group session and scrimmage in HarborCenter Friday. "I know Robin is a really, really good goalie and it’s going to be a competition between him and me but he’s obviously a great goalie. So it’s going to be a battle but I can only focus on myself. Try to stop the puck and we’ll see what happens after that."

Stop the puck. That's what Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said he expected of Nilsson. That's what he did in the scrimmage, getting a shut out for Team Blue, thanks in large part to his teammates who spotted him five goals in the two 20-minute periods of running time.

"It's tough to look at him and not see the size of him net," Bylsma said of the 6-foot-5, 229-pound goalie. "To play big, to play that big, and certainly he did in the scrimmage today, that’s got to be the strength of his game. He’s such a big body to be square and be in front of the shots. The expectation is that he stops the puck and he showed today he can do that."

Nilsson has shown that ability at various times in his hockey career, which has taken him to four NHL clubs and a season in Russia with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL.

It was a potentially risky decision to leave North American pro hockey for a season in Russia, but Nilsson thought it was worth a try. He had played out his entry-level contract with the New York Islanders, spending most of his time with the organization's American Hockey League team in Bridgeport, Conn. He felt he was beyond that level and that in order to get better he needed to pick up and leave the continent.

"It’s always a risk, but I felt for me I was kinda going in the same footsteps," Nilsson said. "I felt I needed an environment change to continue my development. I felt it was the right way to go for me. My goal before going to Russia was to come back to North America and that was always in the back of my head and I was fortunate to do that."

He played very well in Russia in the 2014-15 season, earning a spot on the KHL All-Star First Team with the best goals-against average in the playoffs (1.54) and the most shut outs (six).

That earned him a contract with the Edmonton Oilers where he had a strong first half and earned plenty of playing time. He was in 26 games for the Oilers with a 3.14 goals against average and a .901 save percentage. But he went into a slump after Christmas, was traded to St. Louis and well, here he is now in Buffalo.

His biggest asset these days?

"Definitely experience," Nilsson said. "Last year gave me a lot of experience so this year coming into the season I have a lot more experience than I had this time last year."

He also shares the goaltending competition with familiar faces Lehner and Linus Ullmark. Nilsson has played with all three for the Swedish National Team, playing with Lehner for the U-20 team and winning a bronze medal with Ullmark at the 2014 IIHF World Championships.

"I’m very excited to have Nilsson in here," Lehner said. "He’s a very good guy. I’ve known him from before, too. He’s a hard worker. He’ll fit right well into this team and I think we’ll push each other."

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