ROCHESTER – Alexander Nylander leans against the wall outside the Rochester Americans’ dressing room in Blue Cross Arena. His arms are crossed. His face is expressionless and his voice, while not monotone, is smooth and serious. After all, there’s some serious work for the teenager making his way in the game of professional hockey.
The top draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres in June, Nylander has been impressive in spurts during his first season of professional hockey.
The right winger was tied for third on the Amerks in points heading into a three-game weekend road trip with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 22 games, ranking in the top 15 among American Hockey League rookies.
But there’s more to learn. Like skating straight ahead, moving the puck up the ice with authority and doing that night in and night out.
“Alex is a very skilled player which we knew that coming in,” said Rochester coach Dan Lambert, who coached Nylander during various Sabres camps during the summer. “He is a player that needs to continually work on developing his complete. His willingness to skate in straight lines and attacking north I think is something we’re working on continually and he’s gotten better at it and we’ve got to keep growing.
“Yes for sure,” Nylander has improved since Lambert last saw him in prospects’ camp “but again consistency is the hardest thing to teach I think with a young hockey player. He has shown that he is willing to do it, he wants to do it, it’s just getting him to do it every shift is the challenge. It’s a normal challenge and one that we were expecting to have.”
Nylander has improved since Buffalo fans last saw him during September training camp. His adjustment to the AHL game has also benefited from his family lines getting advice from his father, Michael Nylander who played in 920 career NHL games, and his brother, William Nylander who played two seasons in the AHL for the Toronto Marlies and is a rookie this season with the Maple Leafs.
“I had a lot of advice from my brother and my dad of course,” Nylander said. “It’s been similar to what I expected because of the advice from them. It’s been getting better and better every game.”
But he hems and haws when asked if anything specifically has been helpful from his brother and father.
“Ah, I don’t know. There’s a lot,” Nylander said. “It’s really helpful when they’ve gone through it and you can always talk to them about stuff, so it’s really good.”
What’s really good already are the skills the forward brings to the game at age 18. There are things Evan Rodrigues sees, having played a few games on Nylander’s line. Rodrigues is also familiar with the old friend of consistency which can be elusive that first pro year.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” Rodrigues said. “Obviously he’s a young kid who has some high-level skill. I remember my first year last year, it’s obviously a new environment. The hardest thing is to try mentally to make sure you’re bringing it every night and to be consistent. He’s had some really good games. It’s fun playing with him. He sees the ice very well. He’s going to continue to develop. Obviously he has the tools and it’s just almost growing up.”
Nylander should get an opportunity to see just how much he has already grown up at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship later this month. Nylander is expected to be part of Sweden’s team along with fellow Sabres draft choice Rasmus Asplund, who is playing this year in the SHL.
Nylander played for Team Sweden in last year’s World Juniors, notching 11 points (three goals, eight assists) which helped solidify his spot as a first-round NHL draft choice. Sweden lost to the United States, 8-3, in the bronze medal game and Nylander is ready for some revenge at this year’s tournament held in Toronto and Montreal.
“I played it last year and it was an unbelievable tournament. Should have won,” Nylander said. “There will be a little revenge for this year. If I could go to that I’d be super excited. You’re playing against top players in your age level and it’s always an honor to put on the Swedish jersey. The tournament’s really fun. They do it really good. Of course you just want to win gold.”
Nylander still has to make the final roster and officially be given permission by the Sabres organization. But Lambert sees a big upside to allowing Nylander to leave the Amerks for Team Sweden for a few weeks.
"I think the nice thing for him would be that he would get to play against players his age,” Lambert said. “He would probably see how his game has progressed a little more than on a daily basis here. I truly believe that he would come back, assuming he plays the way he can and the team has success, that he will come back a different player. He will feel confident about his game and then he’ll come back a different player.”