When the Buffalo Sabres drafted Alexander Nylander at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, they felt they were getting a player with one of the highest skill sets available.
Pre Draft Hype
Prior to the National Hockey League draft in 2016, most of the hype was on Auston Matthews and the Finnish duo of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi. However, there was a group of four players that were considered the “next tier” after the top three, and Nylander was widely considered to have the puck skills to be in the upper echelon. He ended his lone season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with 28 goals and 47 assists for 75 points in 57 games for the Mississauga Steelheads.
Nylander was considered to have as much skill as anyone in the draft. With the puck on his stick, his offensive prowess was considered elite. As a winger, his lack of a defensive game was overlooked slightly because coaching can help fix defensive issues for high skill players. Nylander had high-end hands and a great shot. He had all the attributes to play in a sport that was trending towards skill and speed.
It was well documented in the pre-draft process that Alexander came from hockey blood lines. His father, Michael Nylander, played 920 NHL games and had 679 points. His older brother, William Nylander, was a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs who was tearing up the AHL before a call up near the end of the season just prior to Alex being drafted.
Draft +1 Year
Nylander is the rare case of a player in the CHL who was on loan from a European team, AIK in the HockeyAllsvenskan which is the second tier league in Sweden. This meant that he was eligible to play in the AHL with the Rochester Americans as a teenager rather than going back and playing in the OHL.
His first AHL season was nothing spectacular. He played 65 games and totaled 28 points. As a teenager, any production in the AHL is considered a positive. He showed signs of offensive talent even if the results were not showing up on the scoresheet.
He was allowed to play for Team Sweden in the 2017 World Juniors and played at an elite level, recording 12 points in seven games to tie for the tournament lead. He helped lead Sweden to a 4th place finish.
On April 3rd, 2017, Nylander was called up to the Sabres and seen action in four games. Coincidently enough, his NHL debut came against the Toronto Maple Leafs and his brother William Nylander. He eventually recorded his first NHL point in a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was his lone point that season.
Draft +2 Season
With expectations growing, Nylander was hoping to break camp with the Sabres but that wasn’t in the cards, as he was hurt in the Sabres prospect tournament. He didn’t skate in training camp and finally began skating on November 13th, 2017.
Jumping right into game action three days later, he began the season at a rate similar to the previous season. He again attended the World Juniors with Team Sweden, scoring seven points in as many games in helping lead the team to the silver medal.
After heading back to the Rochester Americans upon return from the World Juniors, he again received a call up to the NHL for a three game stint. He recorded another first against Tampa Bay, scoring his first NHL goal on a tip in.
Nylander finished that season in the AHL with 27 points in 51 games, a slight improvement to his points per game production. His playoff with the Americans was a massive disappointment. He was demoted to the fourth line during the first round while being swept by the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Affiliate).
Today, Draft +3 Season
This season Nylander came into camp in great shape. He admitted to the groin injury hampering him most of last season and revealed that he played through pain for much of it.
Playing well in the preseason, Nylander ended up being one of the final three cuts off the Buffalo roster. A disappointing result for Nylander, after showing up to camp in Rochester with a great mindset. Knowing that he did everything asked of him in the summer, prospect camp and training camp, he knew an opportunity was just a call up away.
His season has been another step in the right direction, again slightly increasing his points per game pace by putting up 24 points in 40 games. This means his points per game have gone from .430 in 2016-17 to .529 in 2017-18 and finally a .600 this season.
Although he hasn’t received a call up this season, he is playing well according to all reports. His play this season has helped Rochester lead the North Division by 3 points over the Crunch with 56 points, good for third overall in the AHL.
Is Nylander a Bust?
Seeing a player with the pedigree that Nylander had coming into his draft year and play so few games in the NHL is odd. Of the top 10 picks from 2016, the only one to play fewer games than Nylander is Vancouver Canucks 5th overall pick, defensemen Olli Juolevi, who has yet to make his NHL debut.
One question to ponder is whether the Sabres are purposely taking a long approach with Nylander. This is something the Detroit Red Wings franchise has done with players going back to their Stanley Cup winning days in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. The difference being, the Red Wings draft choices tended to be later in the first round because of their playoff success.
The Wings prolonged the development of first round picks Niklas Kronwall and Keith Primeau, and even recently with players such as Dennis Cholowski, Evgeny Svechnikov and Anthony Mantha. All of whom had their development extended at least two years post draft, often times longer.
Issues With Skating
The Sabres are taking a patient approach with Nylander. This could be due to some of the glaring weaknesses in his game such as his defence and his motor. His skating has been exposed at higher levels of play as well.
His defence hasn’t improved significantly since his draft year. He’s begun to play more physically this season, but he’s isn’t a guy who goes into corners and gets the puck out. He is playing a bit more on the penalty kill this season which should help him improve his defensive game.
His skating isn’t at the elite level that you would expect from a high skill player and it’s showing in the AHL. He isn’t able to create as much space as at lower levels. He was able to rely on his skill and not having to skate as much during his junior hockey days. He is making strides in that department, becoming more confident skating the puck out of his own end and into the offensive zone to help create controlled zone entries.
Nylander’s biggest issue seems to be his motor. His willingness to engage each shift and every game. He often looks like he’s floating on shifts when he’s without the puck. His motor was one of his biggest flaws going into the draft and it remains an issue to this day.
Nylander is a high skill player who is taking time to develop. He isn’t a bust at this point in time, but he is slightly behind the development curve of a top 10 NHL draft pick. With the consistency of his motor being his main obstacle to gaining full-time NHL employment, maturity will be key to his future success. Settling in as a middle six forward is where he projects to be in a year or two. He may get a chance to establish himself towards the end of this season if Buffalo continues to fall out of the playoff picture. If he does, he needs to lock down his spot in the lineup with consistent effort and display his skill on a nightly basis.
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Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals
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