There is little question that it has been difficult to be a fan of the Buffalo Sabres through the last decade. There is something to be said for the die-hard fans that might just die hardly knowing success for the team they are so passionate about.
This was really never more true than it was last spring when general manager Tim Murray was relieved of his duties. This city had bought into Murray, and bit hard on the bait he cast. Masterful tank engineering assured success, and fans flocked to the KeyBank Center like salmon to the spawn. They were there when Murray brought Jack Eichel into the fold, despite his very apparent disappointment. They were also all-in the following season when the team chose the self-glossed Snipe Show, Alexander Nylander, at number eight in the draft. Another top-10 forward to play with Eich? What wasn’t to like?
It turned out, a lot. Snipeshow lived up to the hype when facing fellow U-20 competition, and held his own in preseason shootout drills, but in game situations, Nylander’s performance left a lot to be desired. In the offensive zone, Nylander could be a revelation. Unfortunately, there are three zones to a hockey game, and Nylander suffered in two of those zones. His defensive play was woeful at best in his first season with the Rochester Americans.
Few stats represent this flaw as much as the minus-24 that haunted Nylander in his rookie campaign as a professional. Is it a flawed stat? Absolutely. But, since the AHL doesn’t have much in the way of advanced statistics, we must make do. It certainly offers a glimpse at the play of a wing who had 15 even strength points but was still on the ice for 39 goals against. Using these numbers, we can approximate Nylander’s 2016-17 goals-for percentage at 27.7 percent, which is to say that the young Swede was essentially a liability for the Amerks last season.
Things are quite different this season for Nylander. After posting 28 points in 65 games last year, he’s battled back to score 26 in 48, bettering his output by about one goal every nine games. While 26 points are only ninth on the team, 16 of those points have come at even strength. Also, at a plus-2, Nylander is no longer the irresponsible one-trick pony he was last season. Using the same approximation, his goals-for percentage has jumped to 53.3 percent – nearly double last year.
It’s important because it demonstrates key development that Buffalo’s management has expected in Nylander. He continues to be a key figure for Sweden’s U20 squad, scoring seven points at World Juniors this year, but surely general manager Jason Botterill is looking beyond Nylander’s youthful age group to see how he plays at the size and speed of North American pro hockey.
Nylander got his first call-up of the year ahead of the Buffalo Sabres’ final home game on April 4, after scoring eight points in his last eight games. He’ll only have three matches with Buffalo before the NHL season ends and he returns to Rochester for the playoffs. It’s not much time for an evaluation; especially if he’s only playing 12 minutes a night, which he did in his first action against Ottawa.
The return to Buffalo is important, despite the limited time. He’ll get on the ice with players he hasn’t seen in nine months, ahead upcoming camps. He’ll get game experience, and more ice time with Casey Mittelstadt. These opportunities seem insignificant but could go a long way toward generating chemistry for next year.
Despite an injury-shortened season, Nylander has shown great development, demonstrating improved two-way play and a markedly upgraded defensive awareness. Camps this summer and fall will certainly be more exciting knowing that Nylander could make the jump to the NHL for puck-drop on the 2018-19 season.