This is the most surprising post of the “Meet the New Blackhawks” series I have been working on this summer. On July 9, the Chicago Blackhawks acquired forward Alexander Nylander from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
Blackhawks Pull Off Surprising Deal
The consensus among most Blackhawks fans was that general manager Stan Bowman had done a pretty good job up to this point of the offseason. He added Olli Maata and Calvin de Haan to the blue line, shored up the crease with bringing in goaltender Robin Lehner and added to the depth up front by reacquiring Andrew Shaw. However, that mood changed after Jokiharju was sent east to upstate New York.
To be honest, trading Jokiharju was not a complete shock. The Blackhawks have a potential log jam with fellow defensive prospects Nicolas Beaudin, Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell coming up through the system. The surprising thing was that they were unable to get a better return for Jokiharju, two years after drafting him in the first round.
There has been plenty already written about Jokiharju’s strange first professional season which saw him play in the National Hockey League, at the World Junior Championship and in the American Hockey League. He had success at each level and many felt he would be a top-four defender on opening night this fall. The additions of Maatta and de Haan pushed him down the depth chart and with more top prospects on the way, Bowman decided to cash in his trading chip.
Nylander Still Has Plenty to Prove
Nylander is another one of these young players who have gotten off to a slow start in their professional careers that Bowman is hoping a change of scenery provides the spark that is needed. It worked last season Dylan Strome so it is possible that lightning can strike twice. Nylander is still just 21-years-old so it is far too early to call him a bust.
The Sabres selected Nylander eight overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and he has yet to make much of an impact at the NHL level. Nylander’s first season in North America was a successful one as he scored 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games for the Mississauga Steelheads in the Ontario Hockey League. He had six goals and 12 points in six postseason games that season as well.
He has spent the majority of the last three season in the AHL where he has put up rather disappointing numbers for the Rochester Americans. In 165 regular-season games, he has just 30 goals and 86 points. You’d expect those numbers to be much high for a player who was drafted so high and has a highly regarded skill set.
Nylander has played a total of just 19 NHL games in his brief career. He has three goals and six points. So, if you base your opinion of this trade solely on Nylander’s underwhelming point production, then you automatically think the Blackhawks came out with the short end of the stick.
The thing is, Nylander does have a lot of natural talent and ability, but for whatever reason, he has been unable to consistently put up points since turning pro. Scouts have touted Nylander for his hockey sense and overall offensive awareness. He has very good speed and soft has. His shot release is outstanding and he can do some special things with the puck.
Obviously, consistency is an issue and some of said that comes from his overall lack of intensity. There has been plenty of rumblings over the past couple of years that Nylander’s biggest weakness is between his ears.
This Tweet from Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, shortly after the trade was announced, certainly does not inspire a lot of hope.
It is not all doom and gloom for Nylander. Corey Pronman of The Athletic reminds us that Nylander still has plenty of time to prove himself.
“Nylander is very, very talented. He could easily become a quality top-six forward and a first power-play type in the NHL. I’m not saying he will, his pro career has been rocky and he has a lot of hurdles to jump before he gets to that point, but he’s a very good prospect.”
From “Trade Grades: Blackhawks balance depth in sending Henri Jokiharju to Sabres for Alexander Nylander” The Athletic, 7/9/19
A Tough Road Ahead for a Roster Spot
As much as the Blackhawks need secondary scoring on the bottom six, there is no guarantee that Nylander will be on the opening night NHL roster. Newcomers Shaw and Ryan Carpenter will have spots this October. Zach Smith is being paid to be on an NHL roster, so if he is still here come opening night, he will likely be taking up another roster spot.
As of now, the Blackhawks will have two forward spots open in training camp. Nylander will have to beat out the likes of Dylan Sikura, John Quenneville, Dominik Kubalik, Anton Wedin and Kirby Dack for one of those spots. And that doesn’t even count restricted free agent Brendan Perini who is expected to re-sign with the Blackhawks before the camp opens in a few weeks.
“I thought maybe I would be in the NHL sooner than I have been, but I’m just really excited and looking forward to being part of the Blackhawks organization,” Nylander said after being acquired. “They’re really good with development players. They actually know what they’re doing. I’m going to do my best and stuff that happened in Buffalo and Rochester is obviously in the past.”
It will be quite some time before we declare a winner of this trade. The Sabres have the early lead because Jokiharju has produced at the NHL level where Nylander hasn’t yet. Buffalo has a ton of right-handed defensemen so Jokiharju could have a tough time getting on the ice to start the season too.
If Nylander turns into another Strome, then it really doesn’t matter what Jokiharju does because the trade would be worth it. If he becomes the next Anthony Duclair and Jokiharju becomes a top-pairing defenseman in Buffalo, Bowman will have a very hard time justifying the move. We shall see.