First-line winger Alex Nylander amazed at how much his fortunes have turned
In a few months, Nylander has gone from a potential bust in the Sabres’ system to the winger for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Normally not one to show much emotion, Blackhawks forward Alex Nylander can’t resist grinning when he thinks about how far he has come.
In a matter of months, he has gone from a struggling prospect with a struggling Sabres franchise — unable to break through to the NHL full-time in three professional seasons — to a winger for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two of his idols growing up.
“I didn’t know what to expect; I was just really happy that I got to this team,” Nylander said, chuckling. “Now it’s just amazing how I ended up playing my first game with Kane and Toews. That was unbelievable.”
Coach Jeremy Colliton entered training camp looking for a first-line winger to play alongside the two veteran stars, having penciled Andrew Shaw in next to second-liners Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat, and quickly settled on Nylander.
The playmaking youngster has largely stuck in the spot from Day 1. Drake Caggiula has slotted in situationally because Colliton likes his forechecking tenacity, but Caggiula doesn’t have the offensive upside to be a regular top-six player. The job seems securely Nylander’s for now.
Of course, it’s also not difficult for a player to excel alongside Kane and Toews, and the Hawks’ staff and Nylander are well aware of that.
Whether Nylander can make the cornerstone pair better has been a topic of much discussion, but consideration also is being given to whether they can make Nylander better — and the answer is an emphatic yes.
“They have that experience of what it takes to be successful,” Colliton said. “[And] they’re both pretty good communicators with the guys they’re playing with because there’s a high demand on their performance. You get the puck to a guy like Kane or Toews, good stuff’s going to happen.”
This early in the season, that communication has mainly focused on getting to know each other.
Kane had some knowledge of Nylander’s struggles in Buffalo and Rochester, and Nylander said he regularly watched Hawks games — admiring Kane, Toews and Artemi Panarin in particular — before his own draft year, yet they’d never crossed paths until the start of training camp.
But as autumn progresses, if Nylander further cements his feature role, the communication will become more critical. Kane and Toews, not to mention Colliton, have high expectations for their designated accomplice.
“As time goes on, we’ll probably try to give him more information on how we want to play with him and different things like that,” Kane said Monday. “[We] try not to do that too much right now, let him play his game and kind of get into it himself.”
“Once we start really knowing what the other guys are doing on the ice, plays will become second nature, and things will just start to fall into place,” Toews said after the Prague game. “When you’re not second-guessing what’s going on or where guys are for support, you’re going to keep plays alive, and you’re going to get more chances.”
The range of outcomes for Nylander this season remains wide. He has survived on the top line for only one real game — he could just as easily be back in the AHL by November.
But the Hawks’ locker room seems to be anticipating a permanent stay for the 2016 eighth overall pick. Nylander certainly hopes that’s the case.
“They’re a really great group of guys,” he said. “You can talk to them about anything, and they just want the best and to bring the best out of you.”