The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks pulled off a rare trade on Wednesday as the two teams swapped forwards. Sam Lafferty heads to the windy city, while the Penguins acquire Alex Nylander in the one-for-one deal. While it’s not the blockbuster move fan bases crave, this subtle trade is a great gamble for the Penguins and one that could very easily pay off.
If you are not familiar with Nylander’s story, he’s the youngest son of long-time NHL great Michael Nylander and his older brother William plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Buffalo Sabres made him the eighth-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, selecting the Swedish forward before the likes of Mikhail Sergachev, Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun. While he didn’t jump directly into the Sabres lineup like the organization hoped, he managed to appear in four NHL games the following season after posting a reasonable 28 points in 65 American Hockey League (AHL) games.
Nylander’s High-End Skill a Welcomed Addition for the Penguins
Here’s what you can expect from the newest Penguin: loads of offensive talent, soft silky-smooth hands and a shot that does need a bit of work still to develop. Regardless, when Nylander is on, he’s seeing the play develop, using his insanely high hockey IQ to read opponents and finding himself in the right spots to execute plays. He’s the type of player that needs to play with offensively gifted forwards in order to have an impact on the game.
The Penguins were stuck in a numbers game and a player like Lafferty was likely headed for waivers, so turning a potential waiver claim into a young forward like Nylander is a great move for Penguins management. Ron Hextall and Brian Burke need to be celebrated for facilitating this move. With the impending return of Evgeni Malkin to go along with the strong play of Jeff Carter, who will be returning from COVID protocol soon, the team is stacked down the middle and a player like Lafferty became expendable. Nylander isn’t someone who will slot over to the center position and is likely going to start in the bottom-six on right wing.
Penguins Hope Nylander Turns Into Rodrigues 2.0
With the recent success of Evan Rodrigues, the Penguins likely see Nylander as the same type of project. Let’s have the coaching staff try to help this player who hasn’t quite reached his potential just yet. Head coach Mike Sullivan is one of the best in the NHL for a reason, and while a player like Rodrigues has certainly developed his own game along the way, you can’t discredit the impact the Penguins coaching staff has had on him breaking out.
Nylander is in the same boat here. He’s spent this season playing between the AHL and the Blackhawks taxi squad and has yet to suit up in an NHL game. He’s battled some injury troubles early on in his career, including missing last season due to knee surgery. The crafty forward last tasted NHL hockey back in the 2019-20 season when he tallied 26 points in 65 games.
While Nylander is five years younger than Rodrigues, the latter has gone from a fourth-line depth option to being a staple in the team’s top-six and already scoring a career-high 13 goals in 31 games. He’s becoming the NHL’s most improved player, and look for the Penguins to try and duplicate the same type of game plan with their newest addition.
Penguins Trade Makes Sense on Many Levels
Along with the lack of depth organizationally, the Penguins have some big decisions to be made as both Rodrigues and Bryan Rust are pending unrestricted free agents. The team also has Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin’s contract extensions to worry about so perhaps this is the start of a backup plan should Rust and Rodrigues both walk in free agency.
Look for the newest Penguin to crack the lineup in the very near future and expect to see some offensive plays that display his high-end skill. While Nylander looks to develop from top prospect to NHL regular, it’s going to be the 200-foot game that becomes most important for his sustainability in the Penguins lineup. He’s certainly a solid option for the second power-play unit, and let’s hope he can stay healthy enough to show management they made the right decision. Personally, I think it’s a smart gamble and can see Nylander flourishing in Pittsburgh.
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Shane’s been a part of The Hockey Writers team since 2020, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor, his versatile perspective on game results and everything off the ice produces diverse content. You can also find him on the Maple Leafs Lounge podcast with Peter Baracchini and Alex Hobson. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween