Despite his inconsistency, Alex Nylander took an undeniable step forward in 2019-20.
He became a full-time NHL player for the first time and had a respectable 26 points in 65 games.
He expected to take another big step in 2021. But injury luck had other plans: Nylander tore a meniscus in his left knee, underwent surgery in December and missed the season.
“I was really ready for my second year [with the Hawks],” Nylander said. “I got injured a week before training camp. It was tough to hear . . . [and] really frustrating. You learn a lot of things from the rehab process.”
The initial recovery estimate was four to six months, but because of the way the meniscus was torn, the actual recovery exceeded that. Even this summer, he was impeded from working much on other aspects of his game.
His knee finally feels 100%, but the last year has left his fitness lagging behind the curve.
Nylander sometimes has trailed during end-of-practice laps in training camp. And in the preseason opener Wednesday, he struggled during his 14:33, during which the Red Wings outshot the Hawks 6-1. His most notable moment was strangely breaking up a breakout attempt by Nicolas Beaudin, his own teammate.
“He’s just getting back up to speed again, getting his conditioning back to the level it needs to be,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “It’s just [about] getting back to that NHL speed [because] he hasn’t skated much.”
Much has been made of Jonathan Toews’ effort to get back to playing at an NHL level, and he isn’t the only Hawk working during camp to scrape off not just a summer’s worth of rust, but basically a year’s worth.
Nylander, obviously, is another. So are Kirby Dach and Jake McCabe.
Dach missed 38 of the Hawks’ 56 games last season recovering from wrist surgery and never truly found his groove. McCabe missed the Sabres’ last 42 games recovering from knee surgery. Both of them returned to 100% health this summer but must make up a lot of ground fitness-wise this fall.
“[This is] the benefit of a longer camp — it sure helps them,” Colliton said. “If all those guys were in a situation where we had seven days and then it’s time to play [like last season], it’d be a lot more difficult.”
Dach’s early results are encouraging. On Wednesday, he played 21:25, during which the Hawks outshot the Wings 12-3. His defensive instincts have been excellent since his rookie year, and his offensive aggressiveness should increase this season.
“Last year, stepping in during the playoff race, it’s a higher tempo, and you don’t really have that leeway where if you do make a mistake, guys aren’t as sharp,” Dach said. “It’s good to have this buffer area to get out all the kinks and get ready to go.
“[I want to] prove to myself, teammates, management and the league, honestly, that I’m a good player. I can be a dominant player every night. I know I’ve got a lot of work to do in that aspect, but I’m excited for the challenge.”
McCabe also has felt “really good” throughout camp and should make his preseason debut Friday. He seems the furthest along of the four guys coming off major absences.
Nylander, meanwhile, seems the most unprepared of the four to play on opening night. His sluggishness, combined with the Hawks’ surplus of quality forwards, might portend an October in Rockford for the eighth overall pick of the 2016 draft.
But the organization certainly hasn’t given up on him, and he hasn’t given up on himself.
“I’m really happy and excited getting back [out] there,” Nylander said. “Being in the dressing room with the guys and getting to do normal things is also good. It’s been a long time.”