When the Chicago Blackhawks traded former first-round pick Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alexander Nylander, also a former first-round pick, two very different schools of thought became quickly prevalent among Blackhawks fans. Some lamented the move, believing general manager Stan Bowman had just traded one of the team’s future core defensive pieces, a unit that had been very weak the last few seasons, for an underachieving forward who hasn’t even come close to performing like an eighth-overall pick should perform.
Others were much more hopeful, believing that recent history would repeat itself and the trade for Nylander would mirror that of Bowman’s trade for a struggling Dylan Strome during the 2018-19 season. Much like Nylander, Strome was a high first-round selection, picked third overall, that had a very underwhelming start to his professional career until Bowman provided him with a change of scenery that seemed to reinvigorate the young forward. Luckily, after a strong preseason with the Blackhawks, Nylander appears to be poised to take the next step in his development and become another dangerous weapon for an already potent Blackhawks offense.
He’s Got the Tools to Excel
Standing at 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, Nylander has a skillset that should make any coach salivate. Unfortunately, that skillset hasn’t fully translated to the ice yet, leading to a 2018-19 season in which Nylander scored four points with a minus-four rating during a 12-game stint in the NHL with the Sabres. He produced a much rosier 31 points and a plus-11 rating in 41 games with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League.
While the 21-year-old forward has struggled to consistently put it all together, especially at the highest level, Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton knows the type of player Nylander can be, especially if he makes an effort on both sides of the puck. Here’s what he told Scott Powers of The Athletic.
“I thought he was good. Again, we’re looking for his play without the puck,” Colliton said. “I thought he had a couple really good tracks. He was forechecking, he was skating. That’s what we’re looking for, and if he continues to do that then he can be effective at this level no matter who he’s playing with.”
from, ‘Alex Nylander builds his case for an NHL chance with the Blackhawks’, The Athletic – 9/18/2019
If Colliton has any doubts about Nylander’s ability to contribute, he sure isn’t showing them. Strong shot, strong hands, strong skating — sounds like someone who should fit right in with Chicago’s top skaters.
Showing Signs of Improvement
It was a very productive preseason for Nylander, one that already had him turning heads before the games even started when he made a ridiculous penalty shot during the team scrimmage at the Training Camp Festival, showcasing just how skilled he really is.
The momentum kept rolling into the team’s first preseason game in which Nylander tallied a goal and an assist. Colliton told Jimmy Greenfield of the Chicago Tribune that he saw a lot of positives in Nylander’s game.
“He made some plays,” Colliton said. “He showed some flashes where he was working away from the puck. He got above it a few times and caused turnovers a few times and then when he does that he creates opportunities for himself in transition.”from, ‘Alex Nylander had a big night – and Adam Boqvist had a higlight-reel goal: 3 takeaways from the Blackhaws’ 4-3 preseason loss’, Chicago Tribune – 9/17/2019
The effort and willingness to play both ways is a far cry from where Nylander apparently used to be in Buffalo, as it was believed that his lack of drive and focus was what was really holding him back and causing him to fall behind.
Despite the negative reports during his time with the Sabres, Nylander appears to have come to Chicago ready to put in the work to become a better hockey player and it’s already showing on the ice.
Whether that is the result of a more mature Nylander realizing what he has to do to enjoy a long, fruitful career in the NHL, a result of surrounding a young, high-potential player with elite talent to help unlock whatever it is that he hasn’t been able to figure out, or some combination of both, it’s clear that the 21-year-old is ready to do what it takes to help the Blackhawks win.
“I’m just trying to work hard every shift, be consistent out there and just play my game,” Nylander said. “Make plays and be good defensively as well.”
If Nylander can continue to make plays like he has all preseason and is willing to keep working hard on the defensive end, he is going to be a huge difference-maker for the Blackhawks this season and beyond.