Alex Nylander comes from a family robust with NHL connections.
There’s his father, Michael Nylander, a veteran of 17 NHL seasons, including parts of four with the Blackhawks. There’s his older brother, William Nylander, one of the key members of the Maple Leafs’ young core.
And there’s Anders Sorensen.
“He’s like family to me,” Alex Nylander told the Sun-Times this week. “As a kid, [I remember] him telling how he was when he played and stuff like that. He was just giving us everything he knows ... for me and my brother to grow as hockey players.”
So when Sorensen, a Blackhawks development coach for the last five years and now officially a Rockford assistant, texted Nylander after the July 9th trade to welcome him (back) to Chicago, it was hardly coming from a stranger.
“It’s crazy that I’m working with him again,” Nylander said. “It’s just awesome. I think my development is going to be great here.”
But not everyone is convinced of that last claim. Despite the outpouring of texts he has received from Sorensen and others in the organization, the 21-year-old forward begins his Chicago tenure with a lot of sour hearts to win over.
That the Hawks gave up Henri Jokiharju — the most promising defenseman they had developed internally in more than a decade — to land Nylander initially rubbed many the wrong way, even though Nylander obviously didn’t orchestrate the trade himself (and said he didn’t expect it at all).
Then arrived the scouting reports from Buffalo: Nylander was allegedly lazy and slow with a poor motor and worse internal drive. His failures to excel with Rochester in the AHL or break through full-time in the NHL (he played only 19 games with the Sabres in three seasons) had him written off.
At least that’s how his public reputation had developed. Sorensen saw it differently.
“He really cares a lot, and when he wasn’t playing up to what he thought was his potential, he got down on himself,” he said. “Some guys, when they get down on themselves, especially those higher-end guys, it seems like they don’t care and they just get casual or whatnot. He went through some of that, but I’ve also talked to people around who said he did work really hard.”
When contemplating the trade, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman called Sorensen for a personality assessment, and the IceHogs assistant was able to provide insights on Nylander that no other NHL franchise, including the Sabres, had heard.
After all, Sorensen had known Nylander as a little kid, playing knee hockey in his basement; as a teenager, playing in the Chicago Mission youth program that Sorensen directed; and as a budding top-10 draft pick, navigating two seasons in Sweden, again under Sorensen’s wing.
Even over the last three years, Sorensen and Nylander talked frequently, with the prospect often reaching out for advice on hockey and his personal life. Sorensen always tried to pass along one central message: “Stick with it, and your chances will come.”
“He’s a very upbeat kid, he’s fun to be around,” Sorensen said. “Just like a lot of teenagers, their moods go up and down if things don’t go their way. But he’s matured a lot in that area the last couple years.”
Health problems substantially hampered Nylander’s stint in upstate New York: He suffered a knee injury, a shoulder injury, a broken rib and a groin injury. The latter was the first major issue of his young career, keeping him off the ice for three months in the fall of 2017, and he didn’t handle it well mentally.
“It obviously was a lot tougher than I thought coming back, and the expectations I had of me were maybe a little bit too high,” he said.
Overall, he improved in 2018-19, tallying 31 points in 49 AHL games and four points in 12 late-season NHL games. He lagged in the middle of the season, though, part of a recurring problem through his first three professional campaigns — great starts, decent finishes and struggles in between, often while bogged down by nagging injuries.
Improving his health and establishing more month-to-month consistency will be critical moving forward.
Nylander knows that, and he’s counting on Sorensen — even if he, as he hopes, makes the Hawks’ roster and doesn’t stop in Rockford first — to help. Sorensen always has been able to in the past.
The two were reunited briefly in July at development camp, for which Nylander cancelled a planned vacation to Cannes, France, to attend. His performance in drills throughout the week impressed Bowman, who proclaimed after two days that “he just looks like he’s ahead of a lot of these guys.” But Nylander then disappointed in the end-of-week scrimmage, trying to do too much with the puck and proving rather invisible defensively.
That’s indicative of Nylander’s pro career to date: One step forward, one step back.
But then again, he’s still 21, he still has an undeniable surfeit of talent, and he now has a fresh start with a new — yet in many ways, familiar — team. He hears the clangor of criticism, but he senses an opportunity to finally mute it.
“I want to show them that I’ve got offensive abilities, but also work hard all the time,” Nylander said. “I want to prove to them that I can play at the NHL level.”