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Former Sabres top pick Nylander encouraged by progress with Amerks

ROCHESTER – Alexander Nylander chuckled, leaned against the wall outside the Rochester Americans' locker room at Blue Cross Arena and revealed how he often has to remind himself that he is 20 years old.

"I feel like I'm way older," Nylander told The Buffalo News following the Amerks' morning skate Wednesday. "It's not a bad thing."

Nylander, the Buffalo Sabres' eighth overall draft pick in 2016, is 38 games into his third season with the Amerks and has appeared in 154 AHL games since beginning his professional career.

He does not feel old physically. The winger is bigger and stronger after the most important summer of his career, a fact illustrated by the Sabres' decision to send rehab and development coach Dennis Miller to work with Nylander in Sweden.

But that many minor-league games can be mentally trying for a player of Nylander's pedigree. While others his age or younger are thriving in the NHL, Nylander is still fine-tuning his game in the minors. That has created both internal and external angst at times.

"I’ve talked to him many times about patience," Amerks coach Chris Taylor said. "He can’t compare himself to his brother or anyone else in the NHL. We just have to keep working on what he needs to do to achieve what he wants to achieve. He needs to worry about Alex and nobody else."

Entering Wednesday's game against Binghamton, Nylander had nine goals among 25 points with a plus-8 rating. He is on pace to set AHL career highs in goals, assists and points after playing only 51 games last season because of a severe groin strain. His career totals in Rochester are 27 goals, 53 assists and a minus-13 rating.

Those numbers pale in comparison to his contemporaries. Eight of the top 10 draft picks in 2016 have played at least 114 NHL games. Nylander has one goal and one assist in seven games with the Sabres. Meanwhile, Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, who was drafted second overall and is also 20 years old, has 105 goals in 203 career regular-season NHL games.

Nylander is also compared to his brother, William, a 22-year-old winger who signed a six-year contract extension with Toronto in December after recording back-to-back 20-goal seasons. And there is Nylander's father, Michael, who recorded 679 points over 15 NHL seasons.

Alexander Nylander is used to the expectations attached to his last name and being a high draft choice. He insists neither crosses his mind. He relies on William and Michael as resources during difficult times, particularly last season. That is when Alexander discovered what he believes is the key to helping him stick in the NHL.

"I know the training I’ve been doing is working," said Nylander, who turns 21 in March. "It’s finally coming into my game. It feels good to be healthy this year. I was really unlucky the way I got injured last year. I’m just happy I’m 100 percent. My body feels really good. I just need to keep doing that so I can be my best on the ice."

Nylander was bothered by the groin injury all last season, and the timing could not have been worse. The Sabres were in need of scoring help and finished last in the NHL with 25 wins.

Though Nylander was drafted by the previous regime, he remains important to the Sabres. It is rare when he is not the most talented player in an AHL game. His skating and on-ice vision tantalize, and his shot shows it was no fluke that he scored 28 goals during his lone season with Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League.

"Very skilled player with elite offensive instincts and vision," one veteran pro scout said. "He can make the play with the puck that a lot of players can't or just don't see. ... He seems to get frustrated easily but this could be due to young age and maturity. Projects as a top-six forward in the NHL if he rounds out his game."

Entering Wednesday, Nylander was a combined minus-3 over his previous three games. Offensively, there are times he can appear invisible on the ice. He has only three goals and five assists in his last 18 games.

That does not include his shootout winner against Laval on Jan. 4, when Nylander fooled goalie Michael McNiven with a backhanded shot. Taylor is quick to point out Nylander's age and is encouraged by the progress he has seen on and off the ice.

"He’s getting on pucks because he’s a big guy and he’s smart," Taylor said. "I think he’s doing a really good job, and I think he’s starting to shoot the puck more, too. Overall, he keeps getting better. He’s focusing on his needs and what he needs to do."

Nylander had an impressive training camp with the Sabres, only to not make the opening roster. He wasn't the first forward called up, either. While Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson are learning in the NHL, General Manager Jason Botterill chose a different approach with Nylander.

The Sabres, four points out of the second wild-card playoff spot entering Wednesday's games, could use some help offensively. They are tied for 22nd in the NHL with 137 goals in 48 games and are tied for 27th since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29.

Though the production has been sporadic, Nylander has posted a career-high shooting percentage (15.5), which could yield results with more shots on goal – he was averaging 1.6 shots per game entering play Wednesday. Though he wants to shoot more and do a better job of creating space in the offensive zone, Nylander is encouraged by his own progress and believes he is on the verge of accomplishing his goal.

“You want to be one of the first guys to be called up,” Nylander said. “If I get called up I obviously want to be there to stay. I want to be ready when it happens.”

•••

Sabres defenseman Lawrence Pilut will not participate in the AHL All-Star Classic on Monday in Springfield, Mass. The 23-year-old was selected to play despite appearing in only 16 games for the Rochester Americans.

The AHL announced replacements for Pilut and three others Wednesday afternoon. That will allow Pilut to practice with the Sabres following the NHL All-Star break Sunday and Monday in preparation for a Tuesday night game in Columbus.

Pilut, who signed an entry-level contract with the Sabres in May, was selected an All-Star after having a league-high 22 points with a plus-19 rating for the Amerks. He has one goal among five points since joining the Sabres.

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