There’s no question Alexander Nylander stands out when he skates with his peers. His passing skills, scoring touch and nifty moves are on display whenever he’s alongside his fellow Sabres prospects.
The question is whether he has what it takes to make Buffalo’s NHL lineup. The 18-year-old heard the inquiry Friday. A sly smile crossed his face as if he already knows the answer is yes.
“I practiced a little with the NHL guys before this rookie tournament,” Nylander said before backing off on his positive answer. “I don’t know. I’ll see when I get there.”
Indeed, Nylander will compete for a roster spot in Buffalo when training camp begins Friday. First, the left winger will attempt to make an impression during the Sabres’ prospect challenge.
Buffalo’s round-robin tournament with prospects from New Jersey and Boston begins at 7 p.m. Saturday when the Sabres host the Devils in HarborCenter. Tickets are $10, and the game will be broadcast on WGR-AM 550.
“I get two games going into training camp, so this is a lot of help,” Nylander said after the inaugural practice. “I haven’t played a game since last season, so this is very good for me. I feel ready, and I’m just going to have fun and play the best I can.”
Rochester coach Dan Lambert, who is running the team, said the organization wants to see its newly drafted players a little more than the returnees, so Nylander figures to get a lot of ice time. The No. 8 overall pick in June’s draft practiced on a line with junior scoring center Giorgio Estephan and NHL hopeful Evan Rodrigues, and the trio also worked together as a power-play unit.
Nylander stood out.
“I really liked his pace, which was nice for us,” Lambert said. “He’s a player that can make plays, and he will make plays because that’s what he brings. The fact that he showed us he can practice with pace made it special.”
Nylander’s performance this weekend and during NHL camp will ultimately determine where he plays during the 2016-17 season. There are plenty of options:
*He can earn a spot with the Sabres. The competition at left wing includes Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Matt Moulson and Nicolas Deslauriers.
*He can play in Rochester. Because he is European, the Swedish import is eligible to be loaned to the American Hockey League despite being under age 20. Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen reported to the Amerks after being drafted in the first round in 2013.
*He can return to junior hockey. Nylander recorded 28 goals, 47 assists and 75 points during his rookie season with Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. He could go back and learn how to be a dominant force while playing significant minutes.
*He can play in Europe. Just like Rochester, a trip overseas would allow Nylander to hone his skills against professionals.
The most likely options are Buffalo and Rochester. Nylander, of course, is shooting for the big leagues.
“That’s my goal for this year,” he said. “I’ve been working hard the whole summer. I think I’ve done really good, and I feel really good on the ice.”
He doesn’t have a second destination in mind.
“I guess wherever they want me to go if I don’t make the Buffalo Sabres,” Nylander said.
He’ll take his first step toward his goal when he meets the Devils. Sabres forward Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, a junior teammate in Mississauga, has no doubt Nylander’s first step will be a good one.
“Everyone knows who he is,” Muzito-Bagenda said. “He’s a playmaker. He’ll do what he’s supposed to do: score goals and make plays, put on a show out there.”
The Sabres have two goaltenders for the tournament, Linus Ullmark and Jason Kasdorf, and they’re each expected to get a full game. Buffalo has 15 forwards and seven defensemen, so some players will sit each night. The Sabres close the tournament Monday night against Boston.
“I would think that everyone’s going to get a game,” Lambert said. “It’d be a shame not to give them one.”
The more noteworthy lines Friday included right wing Justin Bailey skating with left wing William Carrier and center Matthew Lane, and Cliff Pu in the middle of right wing Hudson Fasching and left wing Eric Cornel.
The Sabres’ prospects had an intrasquad scrimmage during development camp in July, but facing players from other organizations should increase the intensity.
“When you play against guys that you might play with down the road, the intensity isn’t always exactly the way you want it,” Lambert said. “I think this will be an opportunity for them to really show what they bring.”