Buffalo, NY (WGR 550) -- Buffalo Sabres prospect Alexander Nylander is doing something that not all players his age are able to do. That is play in the American Hockey League at the age of 18.
Nylander was Buffalo’s first round pick (8th overall) in the 2016 National Hockey League Entry-Level Draft. In his draft year playing with the Mississauga Steelheads in the Ontario Hockey League, Nylander scored 28 goals and led all rookies with 75 points. Nylander was also awarded the Emms Family Award as the OHL’s Rookie of the Year.
As the 2016-17 season neared, Nylander had the luxury of deciding where he wanted to play for the upcoming campaign. If the Sabres felt he was ready to play out of training camp, he could start right away in the NHL. If the Sabres felt Nylander needed some development, they could send him to the AHL with the Rochester Americans. Nylander could return to play with the Steelheads and help them push for an OHL Championship. Or he could return to Sweden and play with Rögle BK in the Swedish Hockey League.
Nylander ended up signing his entry-level contract with the Sabres to begin his professional career, but he was sent to Rochester after not making the 23-man roster to start the season.
So far in 22 games this season with Rochester, Nylander has four goals and 14 points to go along with two penalty minutes and a minus-10 rating. While it may seem like Nylander has gotten off to a slow start, he feels that the transition from major junior hockey to the pros has been a good one so far.
“It has been a good adjustment,” Nylander said after a 3-2 win on Friday night against the Toronto Marlies. “Things are getting better and better every game and I feel more like normal out there. It’s been really fun. We have a great group of guys. It’s a really good league and I really like playing.”
“He’s still the same skilled player [as he was in juniors],” teammate Daniel Muzito-Bagenda said on his fellow Steelhead last season. “He’s doing his thing out there. He’s a good player.”
Nylander posted an assist on a first period powerplay goal by Nick Baptiste in Friday’s win at Blue Cross Arena. Nylander showed some skill in the win, and was able to create some quality chances on his line with Justin Bailey and Evan Rodrigues.
Nylander’s game is all about skill and his gifted hockey I.Q. Nylander is technically sound with his game, and can be incredibly deceptive with his speed and his hands. Where Nylander can improve his game is by playing a strong physical game by not being knocked off the puck so easily.
“You see his skill. He makes plays, cuts passes off. He’s a skilled guy,” Baptiste said. “He makes great plays, he can score goals, and he’s a great passer. We’re on the powerplay together and he always seems to find me back door and making plays. It’s only a matter of time until he’s a shining star.”
Playing in the AHL already has done some wonders for Nylander. He appears to be physically stronger on his feet and is much harder to take down. His skating looks stronger, his speed is up to par, and he is seeing the ice well at the AHL level.
Amerks head coach Dan Lambert has seen Nylander’s game grow over the course of 22 games. Where he sees it the most is in his consistency on the ice.
“I think when you’re an 18-year old kid the biggest thing is consistency,” Lambert said. “I just had a chat with Alex about that. I feel that slowly and surely his consistency is being more and more, and that’s important. I think earlier in the year it was shift-to-shift. We weren’t sure of which Alex was going to show up. Now it’s more consistent.”
It has been a rollercoaster season for the Amerks in the North Division. Rochester currently sits at a 9-12-0-1 record, they are sixth in the division standings, and have lost seven of their last 10 games played. Nylander believes though that things are starting to come together for his hockey club on and off the ice.
“We’ve had good practices,” Nylander said. “I think our team is getting going after that little slump and we’re back at it.”
“We have some Swedes here so that’s fun to have. I’ve also had a lot of help from my dad and my brother since my brother played in this league last year. I sort of know what to expect coming into here and it’s been a lot of fun. Of course it obviously helps with two Swedes in the locker room as well.”
Nylander has some strong bloodlines in the National Hockey League with his is father, Michal, playing 15 seasons in the league with 920 career games played. Michael scored 209 career goals and registered 670 points as a skilled, playmaking forward.
Alex’s brother, William, was a first round pick (8th overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 NHL Draft. William has already amassed 45 games with the Leafs with 12 goals and 29 points.
William spent parts of two seasons in the AHL playing with the Marlies where he was a point-per-game player. William eventually made his NHL debut last season at the age of 19. This season, Nylander earned a starting role with the Leafs and has played an important role in the team’s rebuild.
“He’s given me a lot [of advice],” Alex said of his older brother. “[The AHL] is going to be a little bit quicker or a little bit stronger, but [he said] just play your game and everything will go well.”
On Monday, Nylander was named to Sweden’s preliminary roster for the 2017 IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship in Canada. Nylander played with Sweden last year at the very same tournament as a 17-year old, where he scored four goals and registered nine points.
After going undefeated in group play, Sweden was defeated by host nation Finland in the semifinals. Sweden lost the bronze medal game in blow out fashion to the United States, resulting in no medals at the World Juniors for the second straight season.
Nylander had not been asked to participate yet in the World Junior tournament on Friday. However, Nylander said he was looking forward to representing his country once again at a high level of competition.
“[I feel] revengeful,” Nylander said. “We lost last year in the semis and we’re going to do whatever we can to take home the gold this year. It was a really good tournament, really fun. I’ll be excited if I get chosen for that.”
If Nylander is allowed to play with Sweden, he will miss some time with the Amerks. However, coach Lambert is going to let the Sabres organization decide if Nylander will play for Sweden.
“I will leave that up to [Tim] Murray, but I can’t imagine that [Sweden] won’t ask him.”
As the season goes forward, Nylander will look to continue to grow his game with the ultimate goal of getting the call from the big club. Not only are his goals personal, but he hopes that his play can have a positive effect on his team down the stretch.
“[I have to] keep playing my game and try to play as best as I can every single game,” Nylander said. “[I want] our team to have a good playoff spot and be good in our conference. I want to play good as well. If I make the World Juniors, I want to do as good as possible there and take home gold with the team. And hopefully I’ll get called up if I play good down here.”