By Erica Whyte
Since the beginning of his professional hockey career two years ago, there is one name that Rochester Americans fans have all been fixated on: Alexander Nylander, the boy.
Entering the AHL at only 18 years old, he was a boy in every sense. And he took that role in stride.
Having just graduated high school, the fresh-faced first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2016 would often crack jokes at his own expense about everything from his lack of facial hair to his inability to drive a car.
And even now, in the third year of his entry-level contract, Nylander is still the youngest player on the team and two years younger than almost all of this year’s Amerks rookies.
But he has been growing up right before our eyes.
“As young as he is, I think he’s really matured this summer,” said head coach Chris Taylor of the 6-foot-1 forward. “You can tell on the ice, off the ice, and how he’s communicating with the guys. His body language, too, with the other players. He’s got two years underneath his belt, and now he’s grown, he’s matured, and he’s coming in with a real edge to his game now.”
An edge to his game and some major offensive firepower. The winger has notched a point per game through the first eight games of the regular-season. But his journey hasn’t been a linear one.
After setting goal-scoring records in the OHL, the Canadian-born Swede made the leap to professional hockey. Following a strong training camp, the Buffalo Sabres assigned him to the Amerks for his first pro season.
"It was different. I had to adapt. It was just a learning curve, playing against men,” said Nylander of his first taste of AHL hockey. “I had a good year in the OHL, and I wanted to play against men. I wanted to get used to it, but it was obviously hard mentally, especially when you’re not producing like you’re used to. Throughout my (junior) career I was used to producing offensively.”
With a rookie campaign full of change, including a stellar World Junior Championship tournament, a handful of games with the Sabres and his first NHL point, Nylander headed into the summer ready to make the leap to the big club. But when a groin injury, which initially seemed short-term, ended up benching him for months, the toll was both physical and mental.
"I think the injury really screwed with me last year,” said Nylander. "Before that, I had never been injured for more than a week in my life, so it took me a while to get back to full health.”
In his recovery process, the 20-year-old relied heavily on his dad, former Amerk and longtime NHLer Michael Nylander, to coach him through the psychological aspects of recovering from a long-term injury.
“It was huge,” he said of having his dad by his side. "It’s so nice because he knows everything that’s going on, so I can talk to him about everything.”
On top of his moral support, Michael Nylander has played a major hands-on role in the hockey development of both his sons, Alex, and Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander.
"He coached me the year before I got drafted, which is awesome. He’s a huge help out there. I wouldn’t be who I am without him,” said Nylander of his dad’s support.
Having a father with two decades of NHL experience, and an older brother who is a current NHL star, comes with many perks. But to Nylander, one of the biggest challenges is separating his NHL quest from theirs.
"I can’t really think 'my brother did this and that' because everything’s different. Different year, different circumstance. In your head you want to think that way, but you have to also think you can’t compare what happened to them and the way I’m going.”
And perhaps no one understands that mindset more than Taylor, whose older brother, Tim Taylor, spent 13 years in the NHL where he was a two-time Stanley Cup-winner.
"I grew up with a brother that played in the NHL as well, and it’s a tough situation at some points,” said Taylor. "I think last year and the year before, Alex really fell into that hype of everybody talking about his dad and brother and how well they’ve done, and how well they’re doing, but he is his own person.”
“Alex has just got to remember that it may take time for some guys to get to the NHL, but when you get there, it’s about how long are you going to stay there for,” Taylor continued. “For me, I think Alex has got a bright future ahead of him, and he’s going to be a great player for this organization, but he’s got to remember that he’s doing it for himself. When he concentrates on what he needs to do, instead of worrying about the outside noise, he’s a much better, and more focused player."
As for Nylander’s goals this year? He’s trying to keep it simple.
“I’ve just got to keep working hard every game and play the way I know I can play.”
And he added, “And of course, make the big jump to Buffalo.”