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Healthy and producing, Nylander gets chance to show he belongs in NHL

When Alex Nylander arrived in Buffalo last summer, he was eager to prove he belonged. He'd bulked up and said he'd grown up. He was determined to play for the Sabres.

Seven months later, the winger will get his chance.

An injury derailed the start of Nylander's season, but he has an opportunity to finish strong. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft will play in Buffalo's final three games, starting with Wednesday's home finale against Ottawa.

The games will give him a jump-start to prove he belongs in Buffalo next season.

"I'm going to take everything from here into next year," Nylander said after the morning skate in KeyBank Center. "It's obviously going to make me very prepared and get me going even more for the summer of training. I'll just take everything I learn these few games, be a pro in the way the game's played and bring it into next year."

Determination to be a pro has been what's hindered Nylander during his two seasons in the organization. Supremely skilled, the winger also disappears for long stretches.

"He's a skilled player, and when he works hard he can change a game," said Rochester captain Kevin Porter, who was recalled with Nylander. "He's got a lot of skill, and I think he just needs to be more consistent."

There are finally signs of consistency for the 20-year-old. Nylander has five goals and 17 points in the last 20 games with the Amerks, boosting his season totals to seven goals and 26 points in 48 games.

"I've been good there for a month or two, and I just really like the way I'm playing," Nylander said. "I need to bring it up here as well."

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Consistency issues aside, there's no doubt the injury hurt Nylander. He suffered the lower-body ailment in the first game of Buffalo's prospects challenge in September, and he didn't join the Amerks until Nov. 17.

"It was a little tough there coming back from an injury, but I feel like it's a lot better now," Nylander said. "I'm more confident with the puck and stuff like that, so I'm just going to keep playing my game and bring what I did down there to a couple games up here."

This is the second straight season Nylander will get a taste of NHL life. He played in the final four games last year, recording an assist. He says he's more prepared this time, and the Sabres hope so.

"He's played really well the last 20 games," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "He's got eight points in his last eight games. That's one of the reasons why he's gotten rewarded to come up here.

"I just want to see him do what he's done in Rochester recently. I think he's gotten to the hard areas. He's going to the net much harder and using his skill."

Nylander is getting a shot on a skill-filled line. The left winger will skate with center Casey Mittelstadt and right wing Kyle Okposo.

"I've played against him in international tournaments," Mittelstadt said. "He has a ton of talent, a ton of potential. The main thing that stands out for me is his vision. He can make plays all over the ice, and he's obviously especially good in the offensive zone."

The organization is waiting for the offensive numbers to blossom. Buffalo selected Nylander in the first round after he recorded 34 goals and 87 points in 63 games in the Ontario Hockey League. He has 17 goals and 54 points in 113 games with Rochester.

At the start of last season, the Sabres had the option to put Nylander in Rochester, keep him in juniors or loan him to a European team. They opted to let him play against men in the American Hockey League, and Nylander is fine with the choice.

"It's been good for me," he said. "I've learned a lot of things. I've just got to keep going while I'm down there and hopefully get a call up.

"Obviously, the start of the next year I want to be here with the Buffalo Sabres, but I think my development has been good. Really now I’m getting more confident and getting to know the league and getting to play against men."

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Nylander will return to the Amerks following Saturday's season finale in Florida, and the AHL playoffs await. Porter sees that as another important step for Nylander's learning curve.

"Playoffs down there is going to help a player like him a ton, just to see how hard it is and how hard he needs to play every night to make it up here," Porter said.

The goal for Nylander and the Sabres is to get the prospect ready to make it in the NHL.

"It was my goal at the beginning of this year, obviously, but I got an injury there that you can't really do anything about," Nylander said. "I'm going to be working really hard just like I did last summer, be as prepared as possible to be with the Buffalo Sabres next year."

Bigger, more confident Nylander ready to prove himself to Sabres

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