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Bigger, more confident Nylander ready to prove himself to Sabres

As the Sabres' prospects wrapped up practice, Chris Taylor skated to Alex Nylander for a one-on-one chat. The coach wanted to make sure Nylander was ready for this weekend's tournament.

"I’m ready," Nylander quickly replied.

Sensing the forward was saying it just to appease him, Taylor stressed that he was serious. He wanted to make sure Nylander recognized the importance of Buffalo's Prospect Challenge.

"I'm ready," Nylander determinedly replied.

Taylor was convinced.

"He really wants to make an impression on everybody," the Rochester Americans coach said Thursday. "He really wants to be a Buffalo Sabre."

Nylander can take his first step Friday. The Sabres' round-robin tournament with prospects from Pittsburgh, Boston and New Jersey is set to get underway in HarborCenter. The Penguins and Bruins will play at 3:30 p.m., and the Sabres will host the Devils at 7 p.m. Tickets for each game are $10.

"I want to show the player I can be and know that I'm ready for the next level," Nylander said. "I just feel very prepared for the season."

The 19-year-old clearly looked more comfortable on the ice than he did last year. He had an up-and-down season in Rochester, but he got a boost by appearing in Buffalo for the final four games. It's carried over. He did more with the puck during Thursday's practice and seemed to enjoy the physical side after being unprepared for contact last season.

"I loved his jump," Taylor said. "I loved his compete level when we did some three-on-three and five-on-five battles.

"He just looks a little more mature. He looks a little bigger. Everything about him, he looks confident in what he's doing and how he's handling himself."

Alex Nylander has a chance to impress Amerks coach Chris Taylor and the Sabres. (John Vogl/Buffalo News)

Though still listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Nylander looks (and says) he's bigger and stronger. If so, that would erase a major roadblock in his NHL path.

The other obstacle was his intensity. Blessed with great skill, the youngster struggled to compete with the older pros in the American Hockey League. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft disappeared for stretches.

"Now I've played one year pro," he said. "I feel a lot better and more experienced. I know what to do now to get to the next level."

Fellow prospect Justin Bailey knows one year can make a difference. He got eight games with the Sabres in 2015-16. He stuck around for 32 last season.

"Anytime you get a year of pro under your belt, it forces you to mature very quickly," Bailey said. "Looking back at my first year of pro, the first 15 or 20 games were an eye-opener. I think it was the same for him.

"I think he came back trying to be more of a leader and show more of a leadership role. Obviously, physically it looks like he put on a little size as well."

A good rookie tournament could propel Nylander toward a coveted NHL spot. When the Sabres start training camp next Friday, there will be a gaping hole at left wing behind Evander Kane. Someone has to fill it.

"I know I can play up there," Nylander said. "I've just got to play my game, and it'll be good."

Nylander had a huge backer in former General Manager Tim Murray. Everyone's under equal footing under new GM Jason Botterill.

If Nylander is as ready as he says he is, it'll be a good sign for the bosses.

"You've got to have a good impression on them," Nylander said. "You've got to be working hard and showing what you can do on the ice. It's like a new start, so it feels really good coming into this year."

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