As the number of games ticked toward zero, Alex Nylander had a feeling the moment was coming. One day soon, the phone would ring and he’d be on his way to Buffalo.
He got the call Sunday, giving him enough time to get to town and meet his brother. He met him again Monday, this time on the ice in KeyBank Center.
An NHL debut is a dream come true for anyone. The Sabres’ top prospect had the bonus of looking across the ice at his brother and gazing up in the stands and seeing his whole family.
“It’s kind of crazy that I’m going to play against my brother in my first game,” Nylander said before taking on William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He’s helped me a lot since he came last year halfway through the season to the NHL. He’s just helping me try to develop as much in the AHL and just be ready when this moment comes.”
The Sabres helped make the moment happen. They could have called Nylander up from Rochester for Sunday’s game, Wednesday’s home finale or the season-ending road trip. But they knew the Nylanders love to compete, especially with their longtime NHL father, Michael, in the house.
“To play against his brother was a big motivator in giving him the opportunity,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said in KeyBank Center. “There’s certainly some intrigue in seeing how he’s going to be able to do here with us at the NHL level.”
Bylsma feels being surrounded by skilled players will help Nylander, last year’s No. 8 overall draft pick who turned 19 last month. The right winger, who started with center Evan Rodrigues and left wing Marcus Foligno, has had an up-and-down season as a teenager in the American Hockey League.
“Alex is a talented, skilled player,” Bylsma said. “He’s got deception in his game both from his shot and his playmaking ability. I think there’s a good chance that you’ll see him maybe have a little more success than he’s maybe had so far this year in Rochester.”
Nylander is seventh on the Amerks with nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points in 62 games. He had just two assists in his last nine games. Prior to that, he had a run of four goals and five points in eight games. Before that, he went 21 games without a goal.
“It wasn’t really something I was thinking about,” he said of the production. “I was just thinking about working hard and playing my game, trying to get better off and on the ice every day.
“I think I’ve developed a lot in the AHL. They’ve helped me improve all areas of my game.”
The Sabres became enamored with Nylander after he put up 28 goals, 47 assists and 75 points in 62 games for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League, then followed it up with six goals and 12 points in six playoff games. They went into the draft looking at Nylander and two defensemen, and they opted for his skill.
“You’ve grown up measured by your production and scoring goals and racking up points,” Bylsma said. “As an 18-year-old young man, he’s starting pro hockey and learning that lesson about playing the right way and playing all over the ice. That’s a tough one to get when you’re not necessarily putting up goals and putting up points and assists.”
The Sabres can only hope Nylander has the same early career success as his brother. William Nylander entered Monday with 22 goals, 37 assists and 59 points in 76 games, ranking third among rookies.
“We have a lot of similarities,” Alex Nylander said. “We’ve both got a good shot. We like to make plays, but I think he’s a little bit different skater than I am.”
Said 6-foot, 190-pound William of his 6-1, 180-pound brother: “He’s a little bigger than me, great hands and can score and make plays. He’s just getting going with his pro career, so we’ll have to wait and see what kind of player he turns out to be.”
The Sabres are going to give him a four-game look to get the career started.
“It’s been a process for Alex this year,” Bylsma said. “It’s been a development part of his game and one he’s still in. The situation is such for our team that he’s going to get that opportunity here starting tonight with the Leafs in the NHL.”