By Ryan J. Harr
Change is never easy for anyone but imagine being nearly 4,000 miles away from the place where you were born and being only 18 years old.
For the Buffalo Sabres first-round (8th overall) selection in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, Alexander Nylander began his professional career in the top developmental league for the NHL in Rochester, New York. The Blue Cross Arena served as the rink that the rookie called his home arena for the 2016-17 season.
“Coming into the year, I felt I had a good summer,” said Nylander. “Over the course of this year, I learned a lot from playing experience but also a lot from the coaches and other players on how to be a professional.”
On Oct. 14, Nylander, now 19, took the ice as the youngest player on the Rochester Americans’ roster – and the youngest in American Hockey League – for his first shift of his professional career just 25 seconds into the contest. After Nick Baptiste drew an interference penalty, Nylander wasted little time to impact the game versus the Hershey Bears as he fired a shot-pass from atop the left face-off circle inside the Bears zone to Cole Schneider, who was parked in front of the cage, giving the Amerks the lead and Nylander his first AHL point.
“Looking back on that first game, it felt good to record that first point,” said Nylander. “It is something I will remember as we won the game as well, so that is always a positive.”
Later as the Amerks closed out game three of Opening Weekend, Nylander scored his first professional goal in a 6-3 loss to the Syracuse Crunch. He scooped up a loose puck in the offensive zone and wristed it past the right blocker of the Crunch netminder for his first of 10 tallies on the season.
“When I think about all the memories from this year, scoring my first-career goal is one that stands out,” Nylander said. “There are other memories that I have but this is one big one for obvious reasons.”
Nylander appeared in the first 29 contests with the Amerks before he was reassigned by the Sabres to Team Sweden to join his native country’s junior roster for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. Despite leading Team Sweden to a fourth-place finish, Nylander finished as the tournament’s top scorer with 12 points (5+7) in seven games while earning a spot on the tournament All-Star Team.
“I think playing in the World Junior Championships was big for my confidence,” Nylander explained. “I felt really good playing in Montreal and it sort of helped me find my game again.”
However, upon his return to Rochester, the young forward was held off the scoresheet in 16 of 19 games between Dec. 16 and Feb. 19. But being such a young player in a developmental league, it is of course bound to happen.
“It is a process and it takes time,” said Randy Cunneyworth, player development coach for the Sabres. “Alex’s work ethic is second to none. Every practice he’s always working on his shooting, passing, handling the puck. That’s what it’s about. Putting the time in and he’s very willing.”
As the end of his first professional season was nearing its conclusion, and the Sabres eliminated from postseason contention, Nylander received the call he was working towards all season since Buffalo called his name back in June at the NHL Entry Draft: he was heading to the NHL.
“Being recalled was really great,” said Nylander. “It was a goal of mine when I was originally drafted and something I will continue pursue as I enter the offseason.”
Nylander’s recall lasted from April 3 until April 9, but what made it even more special was having the opportunity to make his NHL debut against his older brother, William, and the Toronto Maple Leafs with his family in the crowd.
“It was really neat to skate in my first game versus him in the same building that I was drafted in as well,” said Nylander. “It was really special to have our family there in the stands. I saw and spoke to them the right before the game and again afterwards. I am just really grateful to have been given the opportunity.”
Over the course of his four-game stint with the Sabres, Nylander recorded his first NHL point on former Amerk William Carrier’s goal and averaged 12:20 of ice time.
Nylander was reassigned back to Rochester to finish out the last three games with the Amerks. He was named Rochester’s Rookie of the Year after finishing the slate leading all first-year skaters in goals (10), assists (18), and points (28) in 65 games played.
“Getting a small taste in the NHL gives me something I can build on going into the offseason,” Nylander said. “I am going to work really hard on and off the ice and focus on getting stronger. I plan on working out with my brother back home in Sweden.”
“I believe Alex will definitely put in the work,” said Amerks head coach Dan Lambert. “He is a wonderful young man that wants to be a full-time NHLer and he I think he has taken the proper steps this year to develop despite the stats not showing that. After he returned from Buffalo, I believe he had his best practice and I think that is something he will take into the summer months.”