Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com, will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
ROCHESTER – Americans coach Chris Taylor didn’t hesitate to answer a question about Alexander Nylander’s early career struggles.
“Absolutely,” Taylor quickly replied when asked if criticism of the Buffalo Sabres prospect has been unfair because he started his AHL career at such a young age, “I totally believe that.”
This season, the much-maligned Nylander, 20, has enjoyed his best start as a pro, consistently showcasing the tenacity to complement his slick talents.
Following a strong NHL training camp, the Swedish winger has compiled two goals and seven points in six AHL outings.
Nylander needed 23 games to reach seven points last season.
“You can see the big difference, his skating is much (better) because he’s got confidence, he wants to skate with the puck now,” Taylor said following Tuesday’s practice in Blue Cross Arena. “(In the past), he was kind of afraid. He was timid where to go. I just think with the confidence he has and the respect he’s getting from his teammates in the locker room is big for him.”
Nylander’s early play has silenced some critics who had labeled him a bust or said the Sabres wasted the eighth overall pick in 2016.
Right now, Nylander is brimming with confidence.
“I know I can play up there,” he said.
And he said has more to put on display – his game has an even higher level.
“I think I could create more offensively, get more shots and obviously start scoring more goals,” said Nylander, who wants to be the first forward the Sabres recall. “I think I can just do even better than this.”
Taylor sees positive signs Nylander’s work ethic will help him keep growing and return to the NHL.
“Just because if you score two goals the night before, the next day it’s not just go out there, hit the ice and get it over with,” Taylor said. “Work on something else. He’s doing that. He’s staying out after practice, working hard and working on things that he’s not good at.”
The genesis of Nylander’s turnaround probably started last spring, when the Sabres stressed he would be entering the most important offseason of training in his life. He returned stronger with a more muscular physique and having put on a bit of weight.
“Organizationally, we all had a part in it,” Taylor said of the message sent to Nylander. “But for me, it’s Alex. Anybody can talk to anybody. It’s the player. As coaches, I think some people take too much credit for a lot of different things. …
“You give him foundations, you give him stuff you want him to do. Ultimately, the player’s got to execute it, and right now, he’s executing and he’s doing his job.”
Nylander, who has been skating on a line with center Kevin Porter and Wayne Simpson, said he “basically did what I’ve done every summer.”
“I obviously knew I needed to improve stuff,” said Nylander, who scored a goal and two points in Wednesday’s 6-1 road win against the Utica Comets. “I just feel really good right now.”
Nylander hasn’t always felt comfortable in the AHL.
Two years ago, instead of returning Nylander to the junior Ontario Hockey League, the Sabres’ old regime assigned him to the Amerks, making him the AHL’s youngest player.
Nylander struggled competing against men for the first time. The Amerks, meanwhile, were awful.
“It was a little different playing against men my first year,” Nylander said. “I sort of adapted to it. It might’ve took a little bit longer than I thought. I’m just happy where I am now. It’s a lot better now.”
Taylor said: “The way the team played, not making the playoffs, not winning too many games, that’s a tough year for a guy that’s 18 years old in the American League.”
A year ago, Nylander said he felt similar to how he feels this season before a groin injury he suffered in rookie camp dogged him throughout the campaign.
“It was my first injury I’ve had in my life,” said Nylander, who has played seven NHL games. “It was like basically three months that I was out. It was harder to come back than I thought.”
When he finally made his season debut Nov. 17 with the Amerks, he was behind on and off the ice. He eventually played the last three games of the season with the Sabres, scoring his first goal.
“When you’re hurt, you’re not really around the guys as much as you should be,” Taylor said. “Then we had some success, and it’s tough to get back into it, it’s tough to be involved in the room, it’s tough to be that go-to mentality."
The Sabres kept Nylander off the ice during development camp, but he had five points in the Prospects Challenge and then had four points in five preseason games. Despite making a case for a roster spot on the Sabres, he was sent down to Rochester and been undeterred since his arrival.
"I think this year was a big, important year for him to get off to a good start," Taylor said, "and he has.”
Timely play on special teams
Before the Amerks extended their winning streak to four games Wednesday, Taylor said the way in which they triumphed in back-to-back road tilts over the weekend was crucial.
Rochester rallied in the third period both days against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
In Saturday’s 4-3 win, Nylander’s power-play goal tied it before winger Victor Olofsson won it late. In between, the Amerks killed a two-minute, two-man advantage.
In Sunday’s 3-2 victory, defenseman Zach Redmond’s power-play goal knotted it before Olofsson scored in overtime.
“We talked about it all the time,” Taylor said. “The power-play goals, are they timely? Or are they just power-play goals? We had a couple power-play goals that were timely for us. The penalty kill, when we needed to kill at the right time, we got the kill.
“For me, that’s a bigger signal of what lies ahead for our team. That means we’re caring about each other, we’re laying down, blocking shots for those big penalty kills, we’re doing everything we need to do.
“Then our key guys need to score those big goals, and they did. For me, I honestly think our team just came together immensely after that game.”
Olofsson scored two goals and four points Wednesday, giving him a whopping five goals and 12 points in his first six AHL appearances.
A year after his 47 points led the Amerks, Redmond has compiled four goals and nine points in the opening six games. Redmond scored twice Wednesday.
During the Amerks’ 0-2 start, Taylor said the popular veteran struggled.
“He was trying to do too much,” Taylor said Tuesday. “(It’s) understandable. He wanted to be that guy off the bat to get our team going. … I thought these last three games he’s been arguably one of our best players, not just because of the points, because he adds the defense, he’s good on penalty killing, his calmness on the ice. He brings everybody to that level.
“He’s got that calming effect on our team. What a great guy (he is) in the dressing room, just remarkable, everybody loves him, everybody wants to be around him, and that says a lot. He’s the hardest-working guy in the locker room.”
The Amerks are back on the ice Thursday for practice and then host the Toronto Marlies on Friday at Blue Cross Arena. It will be Hocktoberfest with German-themed food and drink specials and live music. The team travels Saturday to face the Belleville Senators.