Alexander Nylander's tumultuous tenure with the Buffalo Sabres has come to an end.
Nylander, the final first-round draft pick of former General Manager Tim Murray, was traded Tuesday to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for right-shot defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
Nylander, a 21-year-old right winger, had some success during his 12-game stint with the Sabres last season, scoring two goals among four points. However, he could not finish the season because of what former coach Phil Housley described as a cut on the back of the leg and did not appear in the Rochester Americans' first-round sweep in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Jokiharju, meanwhile, is coming off a season in which he won a gold medal for Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championship and IIHF World Championship. He also played 38 games for the Blackhawks, posting 12 assists with a minus-7 rating. The 20-year-old former first-round draft pick was expected to compete for a roster spot with Chicago this upcoming season.
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The trade eliminates one forward option for Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, while adding to the team's surplus of right-shot defensemen.
"Henri is a young, mobile defenseman who has shown he can compete at the NHL level," Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill said in a news release. "His international success last season only furthered his development, and we are excited to add him to our current group of defensemen."
The Blackhawks are hoping a change of scenery benefits Nylander, who was derailed by injuries during his final two seasons with the Sabres. He was limited to 49 regular-season games with Rochester in 2018-19, though he had career highs in goals (12) and points (31).
That earned him a late-season promotion for a third consecutive year. However, he never materialized into a top-six winger. Nylander's tenure with Buffalo was unusual from the beginning. Rather than going back to Mississauga for another junior season, Nylander was sent to Rochester only a few months after being drafted.
Nylander appeared in only four NHL games during the 2016-17 season and struggled to adjust to the physical grind of the AHL, scoring 10 goals among 28 points in 68 regular-season games with the Amerks.
A groin injury limited him to eight goals among 27 points in 51 regular-season games in 2017-18, causing the Sabres to send Dennis Miller, head of rehab and development coach, to Nylander's home in Sweden last summer to formulate a plan to keep the prospect on the ice.
After scoring four goals in a six-game span last October, Nylander had only three in a 22-game span. He also had a 13-game scoring drought from Jan. 5 through Feb. 27, but scored in each of his final four games with Rochester to earn a promotion to Buffalo in March.
Nylander had two assists in a shootout victory over St. Louis on March 17, and scored in back-to-back games, losses to Toronto and Montreal. However, he averaged only 8 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time during his final two games in a Sabres uniform.
"Buffalo, that's the kind of stuff that's in the past," Nylander said during a conference call Tuesday. "I thought maybe I would be in the NHL sooner than I have been. I'm just excited and looking forward to being part of the Blackhawks organization. They're really good with developing players, so they know what they're doing. I'm just going to try and do my best. The stuff that happened in Buffalo and Rochester is obviously in the past."
His tenure in Buffalo included only three goals among six points in 19 NHL games, and 86 points in 165 AHL regular-season games. Among the top-10 players chosen in the 2016 draft, Nylander is one of only two to not appear in at least 139 NHL games. Yet, the Blackhawks view Nylander as a candidate for a top-six role.
"We don’t hand out those jobs in the summer, but I think with his offensive talent and his skill level it’s certainly exciting to think what he can be when you put him with some of the players we have," Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman said of Nylander.
The trade came less than two weeks after Nylander was one of two wingers Botterill mentioned who could play on either the left or right side for the Sabres next season.
Nylander likely became expendable with the recent signing of Marcus Johansson, which gave the Sabres a surplus of wingers. Johansson, Jeff Skinner, Jimmy Vesey, Conor Sheary and Victor Olofsson are among the team's natural left wings. Meanwhile, Buffalo's right-wing options include Sam Reinhart, Tage Thompson and Kyle Okposo.
Upon making the Blackhawks' roster out of training camp last October, Jokiharju quickly earned the trust of then-coach Joel Quenneville. Jokiharju was paired with Duncan Keith and averaged 21 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time over his first 15 games.
"Looked like he has played the game for a long, long time at this level,” Quenneville told reporters of Jokiharju following the Blackhawks' season-opening win.
Jokiharju played a season-high 25 minutes, 29 seconds during a 5-3 loss at Calgary on Nov. 3. Two days later, Quenneville was fired and his replacement, Jeremy Colliton, chose to decrease Jokiharju's role.
Jokiharju was loaned by the Blackhawks to Finland for the IIHF World Junior Championship and played only five more NHL games upon returning, averaging only 14 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, before being sent to Rockford.
During locker cleanout day in April, Bowman denied the notion that Jokiharju fell out of favor with Colliton, adding "we love his game, we still think he has a lot of promise."
Jokiharju had two goals among 17 points with a plus-7 rating for Rockford. Prior to his demotion, Jokiharju was Finland's top defenseman at the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he was teammates with Sabres prospects Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Oskari Laaksonen. Jokiharju had two goals among five points in seven tournament games.
Jokiharju is the latest right-handed defenseman in the Sabres organization, a group that also includes Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson and Will Borgen. Nelson and Bogosian are set to be unrestricted free agents next summer, while Montour will be a restricted free agent.
Jokiharju won't become a restricted free agent until 2022 and will count $925,000 against the salary cap the next two seasons. Ristolainen and Miller are both under contract through 2021-22.
Botterill is likely not done, either. The team has $6.6 million in salary cap space and is in need of additional scoring help. With the free-agent market mostly picked over, the Sabres could theoretically trade from their defense corps to add a top-six forward, specifically a second-line center.