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Blackhawks’ Alex Nylander experiment ends with trade to Penguins

The Hawks acquired grinding forward Sam Lafferty for Nylander, one of Stan Bowman’s biggest mistakes.

Alex Nylander’s Blackhawks tenure ended Wednesday.
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Alex Nylander’s tenure with the Blackhawks ended Wednesday with a whimper.

The Hawks traded Nylander, who hadn’t made an NHL appearance since August 2020, to the Penguins for Sam Lafferty.

In a vacuum, it’s a low-stakes, low-reward swap of depth forwards barely worth thinking about. But in context, it’s a meaningful final surrender by interim general manager Kyle Davidson on Nylander, who will go down as one of ex-GM Stan Bowman’s most egregious mistakes.

While Henri Jokiharju — the former first-round pick Bowman controversially traded for Nylander in July 2019 — averages more than 21 minutes per game as a 22-year-old top-four defenseman for the rebuilding Sabres, Nylander never came close to panning out as the top-six playmaking winger Bowman envisioned.

Forced into a top-six role in 2019-20, he recorded a respectable 26 points in 65 games, but his defensive work ethic — a constant criticism in Buffalo — remained a weakness.

He then missed all of last season recovering from late-offseason knee surgery. During training camp this fall, he appeared nowhere near the necessary fitness levels. And although he was scoring at a decent clip — 12 points in 23 games — with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, the Hawks didn’t consider his overall performance good enough to warrant a call-up.

Although he never made a formal trade request, he did ask to be given another NHL opportunity either in Chicago or elsewhere, a team source said Wednesday. After a lengthy search for a suitor, the Hawks finally found a new home for him in Pittsburgh.

Lafferty adds some depth and physicality to the Hawks, but he’s a known commodity at this point. The 26-year-old forward has tallied 15 points and 218 hits in 94 games for the Penguins over the last three seasons.

He had struggled to crack their lineup this season, making only 10 appearances with two points — and with Evgeni Malkin likely to return from injury soon, he might’ve been bound for waivers if not traded.

Sam Lafferty (left) had played in 10 games for the Penguins this season.
AP Photos

In that sense, the deal works for both teams’ interests. Nylander, who’ll turn 24 in March, was unexpectedly declared waiver-exempt by the NHL this season, which surely appealed to the Penguins. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer.

Lafferty’s waiver requirement, meanwhile, won’t be as much of an issue for the Hawks, with whom he’ll likely be able to hold a consistent roster spot. He carries a cheap $750,000 salary cap hit and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

He was also acquired partly with future trades in mind. The Hawks expect to potentially auction off several forwards for draft picks or prospect rights over the coming months — ahead of the March 21 trade deadline — and don’t want to have to use prospects currently developing in the AHL to fill limited-minute fourth-line NHL roles after they do so, a team source said. Lafferty can fill a role like that instead.

The fact the Hawks’ new regime didn’t trust Nylander to even capably handle that type of mop-up NHL duty, though, indicates just how detached from the consensus Bowman’s perception of the enigmatic winger was.

His descriptions of Nylander from July 2019, the day of the Jokiharju trade, sound comically exaggerated in retrospect.

“The thing that’s appealing to us is, when you look at what he does when he’s at his best, it’s stuff that you can’t teach,” Bowman had said then. “It’s high-end talent. He’s got the creativity to his game. He’s got the skating and the skill and the stick-handling. . . . We can help him become a consistent performer. [It’s] a very exciting skill set that he brings to the table.”

Although not his most destructive miscue in terms of magnitude, arguably no trade felt more imprudent and ill-fated from the start. Wednesday’s news provides one final bit of proof of that.