While Alex Nylander seeks to ignite scoring, zone exits and entries remain strengths
The young Blackhawks forward hasn’t been as productive or impactful as hoped in his first season, but he hasn’t been a complete disaster, either.
With just six goals and 11 assists through 50 games, Alex Nylander’s first full NHL season has not been as productive as hoped.
Considering the valuable commodity in Henri Jokiharju — who has become a top-four regular with the Sabres — the Blackhawks sacrificed to acquire him, many fans have labeled the nearly 22-year-old Nylander a bust.
But he at least hasn’t disappointed in every way.
“His ability to skate with the puck and drive the play, that’s a benefit for him,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Wednesday. “The focus for him is just doing it all the time: being consistent, finishing his shifts off, [including] when he’s tired [at] the end of the period, end of the game. But he’s been playing pretty well for us.”
In terms of exiting the defensive zone and entering the offensive zone — two skills increasingly heavily emphasized in today’s possession-obsessed NHL — Nylander actually grades quite well.
Nylander has succeeded in maintaining possession while exiting the defensive zone a team-best 59 percent of the time, according to new data released this week by hockey analyst Corey Sznajder.
While fellow fourth-liners Ryan Carpenter and Zack Smith fall below the league average of roughly 45 percent, Nylander is in the same territory as — and actually exceeds — elite puck-carriers Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane.
And on the flip side, Nylander ranks second on the Hawks (behind only Kane) in terms of offensive-zone-entry attempts per minute, and he’s doing so with a 57 percent carry-in (versus dump-in) rate — also well above the league average of about 43 percent.
Although the transition-focused Hawks are good largely across the board in this stat, and Nylander ranks in the middle of the pack on the team, he’s still one of the better players leaguewide in that category, too.
“I know I’m a fast skater, so if I get the puck in the D-zone, I just try to skate it and create something off that,” Nylander said. “It’s a good stat. Obviously you want the puck, and that’s something I do with my game. I carry the puck in the zone and try to make a play or get a shot to the net.”
The final part of that quote has been more of a struggle, though. Nylander ranks seventh on the team in individual scoring chances per minute and often has lacked killer instincts in the offensive zone, turning the puck over or curling out of danger areas when pressured.
During the Hawks’ 11-day All-Star break, Nylander went home to Sweden to work on all those things: “My shot, my hands and getting my skating [going].”
He kept his sleep schedule generally aligned to central time — meaning he went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning and woke up in the early afternoon — to prevent jet lag upon his return.
That’s the kind of dedication to development the Hawks want to see in Nylander, whose minutes have been reduced to 10 to 12 per game lately to help him focus more on maximizing every shift.
The extra midseason training seemingly has made a difference. On Tuesday in Minnesota, for example, he was noticeably involved in the play.
And he always has his excellence with zone exits and entries to fall back on for confidence.
“You see all the good players, they’re always carrying the puck,” Nylander said. “[I’m] just trying to learn and see what the other guys are doing. Obviously just moving my feet, and when I’m doing that, good things are happening.”
NOTE: In a statement Thursday to NBC Sports Chicago, the NHL officiating department backed the initial hand-pass call made by referees in the Hawks’ game Wednesday against the Bruins.
The league ruled that Olli Maatta didn’t have possession of the puck when he deflected it with his stick after pushing it with his glove. Therefore, the result was still a hand pass.