Nylander playing with a different fire

September 22, 2018

Fair or unfair, many Buffalo Sabres fans have drawn a conclusion that 2016 8th overall pick pick Alex Nylander is either a bust, or in a make-or-break season with the organization. While Nylander is only 20 years old, he's already been seen as another Tim Murray flop and a forgotten man in the Sabres prospect pool.

Granted, Nylander has not done much in his two seasons as a professional. In two years, Nylander has only seen 7 games in the NHL, with one goal and one assist. Nylander's stints with the Sabres were both when the season was ending and Buffalo was either well out of contention or staring at the worst record in the NHL.

There have been a large number of outside factors that have not helped in the perception of Nylander as a Sabre as well. From the top ten of the 2016 draft class, only Nylander and 5th overall pick Olli Juolevi have yet to play in 10 NHL games. Many fans were shocked when Buffalo passed on a pair of defensemen in Mikhail Sergachev (9th overall) and Charlie McAvoy (14th overall) for Nylander. Both have played a full season in the NHL and show promise as potential top-pairing defenders in the league.

Then there is his family. Alex is the son of longtime NHLer Michael Nylander and his brother William is a top player for the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Like Alex, William was drafted 8th overall in 2014. However, in stark contrast to his younger brother, William has been lighting the lamp in Toronto with 135 points in 185 games. This is where Sabres fans are jealous. William Nylander has been a steady top 6 mainstay on the hated Leafs, while Alex has been stuck in the minors for two years. What people don't seem to realize or remember is that William almost took two seasons to make his Leafs debut as well.

However, this looks like the year that Alex Nylander could make the Sabres out of camp and start the season with the big club for the first time in his young career. In the past two seasons, Nylander has often been seen as someone who doesn't play with an edge and not been a player willing to do the little things in a game to compliment his skill set. This year, that looks to be much different. Nylander is not only winning battles along the board and making the heads up plays, he's engaging and starting them. In Columbus, some hard work was needed to get Nylander the chance to collect two assists. Against Toronto, Nylander almost capped off a breakaway after he stole the puck from star center John Tavares. On Tage Thompson's goal, Nylander drove right to the net to gather the attention of the second defenseman, allowing Thompson the space to pull a slick move and score the goal.

And it hasn't just been in the preseason games. At the Prospects Challenge, Nylander has shown that same drive that has not been seen for most of his time in the Sabres organization. He was rewarded for his work by getting an "A" on his sweater during the tournament and his play was dominant for a lot of the time he played. His stat line wasn't truly rewarded until the Pittsburgh game where he had 4 points in a period, but it was refreshing and great to see Nylander standing out like a top prospect should in those tournaments.

It looks like he has finally turned the corner. It seems like he gets what it takes to be a full time NHLer. He's still only 20 years old. While teams are consistently seeing top players entering the league in their teens (look no further than the Sabres with Jack Eichel to start his career and rookies Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt), it doesn't mean Nylander should have been written off for not making it right away.

Hope is renewed in the 2016 first rounder. He's always had the skill. Now he's showing the team that he has the drive to compliment it.

Nylander doesn't want to go back to Rochester. Message received.