The burgeoning rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t just going to be about Jack Eichel vs. Auston Matthews. Or Mike Babcock vs. Dan Bylsma. Or the sets of fans on both sides of the border trying to outshout each other in the stands.
Now it’s going to cross family lines.
The Sabres created even more intrigue Friday night, taking Mississauga left winger Alexander Nylander with the No. 8 pick of the NHL Draft in First Niagara Center. The 6-foot-0, 178-pound Nylander is 18, two years younger than Leafs prospect William Nylander, who split time this year in Toronto between the NHL and the AHL Marlies. Their father is former NHLer Michael Nylander, a Mississauga assistant coach who played 920 NHL games with seven teams from 1992-2009.
Alexander Nylander, who was born in Calgary but raised in Sweden, led all Ontario Hockey League rookies in scoring last season with 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games. The dynamic skater earned both OHL Rookie of the Year and CHL Rookie of the Year honors. At the World Junior Championships, he led Sweden with four goals and five assists as the Swedes lost to Finland in the gold-medal game.
As he has the last two years, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray was again thrifty at the microphone, using just four words – “Buffalo selects Alex Nylander” – to make the pick. The sellout crowd roared its approval and Nylander donned his blue and gold sweater with No. 16 on the back as the fans cheered again and the newest Sabre smiled broadly.
“It was an unbelievable moment,” Nylander said. “The best moment of my life, a big dream come true. That was the first time to hear that and it was unbelievable to hear the fans cheer.”
“Skill, skating, the whole package,” was Murray’s assessment. “You hear everybody in the league talking after Pittsburgh wins the Stanley Cup about speed and skill and that’s what we’ve been trying to do the last couple of years. We don’t have enough of it yet. We’ve made great strides, but to add a guy like him we think is a top-6 forward kind of fit into our blueprint.”
It was a strange first round, one that saw teams confound virtually every draft expert. Columbus pulled a stunner at No. 3 by taking Cape Breton forward Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi, who had been pegged at that spot for months and dropped to Edmonton at No. 4.
By the time the Sabres’ pick came around, they had their choice of Windsor defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and Sarnia blueliner Jakob Chychrun. The prevailing wisdom was that Buffalo would add to its back end but Murray said Nylander was team’s top choice.
Nylander joins a growing cadre of talent up front with the Sabres, who nabbed Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, respectively, with the No. 2 overall picks the last two years.
“I think I’m a playmaker who is a gamebreaker also,” he said. “I play with very good hockey sense with good vision, able to create plays offensively, and I think I have abilities to make my linemates better. ... I was watching the draft last year with Eichel and they have some pretty phenomenal players on the ice and it will be really fun playing with them one day.”
The sellout crowd was jazzed from the moment longtime NHL exec Jim Gregory did the roll call of teams on the draft floor. The Toronto Maple Leafs got crushed with boos when they were called.
While sitting with his family, including his father and brother, Alexander Nylander said he was nervous awaiting the call of his name and didn’t pay much attention to the boos for the Leafs and the selection of Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against my brother,” said Alexander Nylander. “The rivalry is really big. It’s going to be really fun. ... We’ll be friends. We’re really close to each other and we’ll enjoy every moment playing against each other.”
Nylander was on loan to Mississauga so he could play in the AHL next season. He could also go back to Sweden in addition to playing in the NHL or juniors.
Murray said he was unable to make any deals and that trade talks for help on defense, presumably for Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, are continuing. He called Edmonton about the No. 4 pick, had Ottawa inquiring about swapping Nos. 8 and 12 (rejecting that overture when Nylander was still available), and had an unnamed team ask for three picks to get another first-rounder.
“I’m not that fond of the stage to pay a price that’s not worth it just because we’re home,” Murray said.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula received a standing ovation when he went to the stage to address the crowd and the North American television audiences prior to the Leafs’ pick. The draft then began in its customary fashion, with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman taking to the podium to also greet the fans – and getting crushed with boos.
“Thank you for that energetic welcome,” cracked the Commish.
Before turning the podium over to the Leafs to select Matthews, Bettman chimed in with one piece of news: The Sabres will again host the NHL Scouting Combine at HarborCenter in 2017. The annual event moved here from Toronto in 2015.