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Re-assessing Nylander’s development

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Alex Nylander has made strides in his development this season but questions remain about his long-term role with the Sabres

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Leading up the the 2018-19 season, Alex Nylander’s development was a hot topic of debate among fans of the Buffalo Sabres. Entering his third full season with the Rochester Americans, the jury was still out as to whether of not the former eighth-overall pick would ever live up to his draft pedigree.

One year later, questions remain. While it’s undeniable that the 21-year-old has made some encouraging strides, his future as an integral member of the Sabres’ top-six is far from certain. In speaking to Keith Wozniak of LetsGoAmerks.com, we were able to get a picture of some specific growth trends that have taken place since the end of last season.

It sounds simple but when the season started he wasn’t a spectator just looking for the play,” he stated. “He was making plays. He was battling for the puck. He was playing with determination. He had a strong NHL camp and that likely followed him to start the season.

That hot start left some fans lamenting the fact that Nylander was sent back to the AHL while players like Tage Thompson (who probably should have at least started the 2018-19 campaign with the Amerks) stayed in Buffalo. Soon after his early-season success, a regression took place, re-igniting the concerns that existed prior to Nylander’s outstanding training camp performance.

This season has been split into three chapters - the start of the season, the middle of the season, and then the 21 year old part of the season,” Wozniak continued. “He started the season in Rochester playing as a legit prospect. He was leading plays on the ice and scoring. That may have been the carry-over from training camp. Then, everything about his play went in the opposite direction.

At that point, it appeared that Nylander’s season was going downhill. From November 30 to February 2, when his offensive production came to a screeching halt, registering a mere seven points in that 23-game span. On February 5, he sustained an upper-body injury in practice, missing eight games. On February 22, he returned to the lineup and busted out of his pre-injury scoring funk with seven points in as many games before the Sabres recalled him.

“The injury from practice gave him some time off and when he returned he turned 21, scored goals in four straight games, and found his path to the NHL,” said Wozniak.

Overall, there are still many who feel that his 31 points in 49 games for Rochester this season is enough to have earned him a full-time role with the big club in 2019-20. Going quiet offensively for months at a time is a potential cause for concern. At this point in his development, that extended dip in production is tough to overlook. Wozniak provided insight on what may have caused the aforementioned scoring slump.

“Maturity. He thought he was an NHL player (as all players should) and has always appeared to just be killing time in the American League, waiting for the opportunity.”

What’s encouraging is how well he was able to buckled-down, and focus on the weaker points in his game, even amid his point drought. Leading up to this season, one of the major critiques from fans and experts alike was his glaring deficiency on the defensive side of the puck. Very few spectators questioned his raw speed or natural (albeit inconsistent) ability to be creative on offense, but he was not really seen as a complete player. Given his age and status as an AHL veteran (of sorts), this year was, and still is, to some extent, the point of no return.

Fortunately, many have noted his increased focus toward honing his two-way ability and acknowledging his own shortcomings. This development (both mentally and physically) was of paramount importance, considering the negative rumors that had previously surfaced regarding his work ethic (a sentiment which Keith echoed above).

Since last season, Nylander’s name was being floated in trade scenarios as a potentially depreciating asset that might not garner an attractive return for much longer. Fans grew increasingly concerned that, were he to put together another uninspiring campaign, the organization would perhaps never obtain an adequate return from such a high draft investment.

The Sabres have an important decision to make in the offseason. Was Nylander’s performance this season enough to convince Jason Botterill that he can be counted as an essential piece of the future core? If not, then this summer is absolutely the time to trade him. Obviously, that all depends on what teams would offer in terms of a return, but if the front office is still not convinced at this point that he will ever reach his potential, they shouldn’t wait any longer to make a move.

From an analytics standpoint, Nylander had a positive impact during his brief sample of games with the Sabres this season. With an overall Corsi-for of 56.13, he posted positive relative-Corsi metrics in eight of his 12 appearances.

Again, this sample size is very small, but still at least somewhat encouraging.

In all likelihood, Botterill will stay the course and hang onto him. Trading a young offensively capable asset on his entry-level contract is a risk in and of itself. There is little chance that a team out there would be willing to part with a first-round pick or better (i.e. an established top-six presence) in exchange for his services, and if that’s the case, the smarter course of action would be to give him a full season in the NHL in 2019-20, for better or worse.

Of course, Botterill could opt to have Nylander start his fourth professional season in the AHL, but it seems that the time has come to see once and for all if his progress will translate to NHL success. That question cannot be answered (at least not sufficiently) in Rochester.

We’d like to extend a big thank you to Keith for lending his insight and taking the time to speak with us on this topic.