Just over 12 months ago the Buffalo Sabres selected Alex Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads with the eighth pick of the 2016 NHL Draft. It was the consolation prize for a very disappointing season, the first for Sabres stars Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly.
A year later, the Sabres had not improved. They were one of the worst offensive teams in the NHL. Under Dan Bylsma, Buffalo managed 201 goals, ranked 26th in the league. That number was inflated by the 57 power play goals scored on the league’s best unit, as the Sabres had the worst even strength goal percentage with only 69.9% of their 201 goals. Only the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils failed to score more than the Sabres at 5-on-5.
It’s understandable then, that the Sabres would want to bring in such an explosive offensive player as Nylander in 2017-18.
But would it be best for his development?
Following in Family Footsteps
The easiest comparison to Nylander would be his older brother William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both players were drafted eighth overall, Alex from the OHL and William from the Swedish Hockey League. William went to the AHL in his first year with the Leafs and spent two years there before making the jump to the NHL last year. This approach has paid in dividends for Toronto, who saw his abilities flourish with the Marlies.
In his first year, William scored 32 points in 37 games. In his second season, he scored 45 in 38 games. This is a far cry from Alex’s first year in the AHL, where he only scored 28 goals in 65 games with the Rochester Americans. The difference being that the Marlies were a playoff team with William, unlike the Amerks and Alex.
With a revamped team, it is possible that Alex will see his points increase similar to his brother’s second year. It would then seem sensible to keep Alex in the AHL for the 2017-18 season regardless of the Sabres’ offensive woes.
Another Swede with a similar career trajectory is Viktor Arvidsson of the Nashville Predators. Arvidsson was an AHL All-Rookie in 2015 with the Norfolk Admirals.
After scoring 40 points in 50 games in the Swedish Hockey League he was brought over to the AHL and was a revelation scoring 55 goals in 70 games. Again, this is a far cry from Nylander’s totals in his rookie year but Arvidsson was two years older than Nylander was in their rookie seasons.
Arvidsson was a playoff hero in Nashville, scoring 13 points in 22 games all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals where they lost to Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Botterill Effect
The Penguins, of course, is where new Sabres GM Jason Botterill learned his trade. He collected three Stanley Cups in Pennsylvania and the last two Cups have a distinct AHL stamp on them. Botterill was the GM of the Wilkes-Barrie Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s minor league affiliate, where he oversaw the development of the young stars. Matt Murray was a rookie sensation in their 2016 Stanley Cup win after developing under Boterill into one of the best AHL goalies. Jake Guentzel tied the rookie playoff record in 2017 after being one of the top scorers in the AHL.
It seems likely that Nylander will be in the AHL at the start of the 2017-18 season. Botterill has emphasized the importance of AHL development in the past and will continue to do so in Buffalo.
Even if Nylander starts in Rochester, there is nothing to say he won’t be called up. Botterill has mentioned that Guentzel was not ready for the NHL in October of last year but was in January, and thus called up.
Under Botterill, development will not be a 12-month review, but a constant evaluation. So don’t be surprised if we see Nylander in Buffalo this season and not just for a four game cameo.
Some might say that playing with Eichel will improve Nylander’s game more than letting him carry his own line in Rochester and that may be true. William Nylander’s play improved with Auston Matthews and Leon Draisaitl’s numbers sky-rocketed alongside Connor McDavid in Edmonton.
However, other rookies have come into the NHL without superstar line mates and flourished. Matthew Tkachuk was a revelation for the Calgary Flames but rarely saw time with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Sebastian Aho has a very similar game to Nylander and played on a bad Carolina Hurricanes team with great results.
Of course, if Nylander plays in Rochester, it will mean someone else will have to come up. Right now, it looks to be either Justin Bailey or Nick Baptiste, both have developed nicely in the AHL, with the latter scoring 25 goals last year. But neither has put a stamp on the NHL yet. If both hit the ground running this year, it would give Sabres management more options and most likely lead to Nylander staying in the AHL.
If they continue to struggle at the NHL level it will create a difficult situation since that was a problem under the last management: there were few players coming up through the development pipeline and none were good enough to play with the Sabres.
The NHL is getting younger and younger and rookies are having a greater impact from the start. Do you think Nylander can make the step up to the NHL or should the Sabres be patient with their development?