BUFFALO – Why now? Why did the Sabres recall top forward prospect Alexander Nylander today of all days, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and his brother, slick rookie William Nylander, in town?
On one hand, the night will be unforgettable. NHL debuts are always special, but could you imagine doing it against your brother? On the other hand, the pressure on Alexander Nylander, 19, will only increase.
“It’s kind of crazy I’m going to play against my brother my first game,” Nylander told more than 20 reporters this morning after skating inside KeyBank Center. “I’m super excited, very pumped.”
The spotlight will be on Nylander, the eighth overall pick in 2016, all night. The recall has certainly created a buzz.
“The opportunity to play against his brother was a big motivator in giving him the opportunity today versus yesterday and Wednesday against Montreal,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said this morning.
The biggest motivator was the Sabres’ desire to examine Nylander against hockey’s best competition.
“To this point, I’ve seen him on film,” Bylsma said. “I was really intrigued about seeing him play in the World Junior (early in the winter), which I thought he played excellent for his team there and did really well. So there’s certainly some intrigue in seeing how he’s going to be able to do here with us at the NHL level.”
In his first North American pro season, Nylander has nine goals, 27 points and a minus-20 rating in 62 AHL games. The Swede has four goals and eight points in his last 18 outings with the Rochester Americans.
The Sabres held him out of the Amerks’ tilt Sunday afternoon. Nylander said he recently had “a little bit of a feeling” he could receive his first recall.
“You never know,” he said.
Nylander’s stats, of course, aren’t exactly notable. His skill, however, is undeniable. Some believe the youngster was the most talented in the 2016 draft.
“Great hands and he can score and make plays,” said William Nylander, 20.
The Sabres probably expected the AHL’s youngest player wouldn’t compile gaudy numbers competing against men. They’ve been measuring growth in different ways.
“That’s kind of how you grow up, measured by production and scoring goals and racking up points and what you do there,” Bylsma said. “I think as a (19-year-old) young man, he’s starting pro hockey and learning that lesson about playing the right way, playing all over the ice. That’s a tough one to get when you’re not necessarily putting up goals and putting up points and assists.
“All the while, you’re an (19-year-old) kid doing it. I think it’s been a process for Alex this year. It’s been a development part of his game, one he’s still in. The situation is such for our team he’s going to get that opportunity tonight.”
How does Nylander, who says little about himself, think he has improved?
“I play better defensively and have improved offensively,” he said.
Nylander has done that in what Bylsma called “a man’s world in a man’s game.”
“That’s really kind of been the challenge for Alex this year playing in the American Hockey League,” he said. “You got to keep that in mind they’re just (19) years old. It’s a big challenge for him.”
Bylsma plans to play Nylander on the right wing with center Evan Rodrigues and Marcus Foligno.
This will be the Sabres’ third straight game with a brother on the other side. Sabres captain Brian Gionta faced Stephen Gionta in the Sunday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to New York Islanders. Foligno faced Nick Foligno in Tuesday’s 3-1 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Check back later for much more on Nylander’s debut. He said his father Michael, who made 920 NHL appearances, and his entire family will attend the game.
In other news, Bylsma said goalie Robin Lehner will start. The rest of the lineup will be announced before the game. Defenseman Cody Franson will likely return from a six-game absence (hyperextended joint).
More notes on tonight’s game:
– The scorching Leafs have won three straight games and six of the last seven.
– Sabres are 18-2-1 in their last 21 home contests against the Leafs. They beat them 5-2 here March 25.
– Sabres center Jack Eichel has gone pointless in the last two games. He hasn’t had three consecutive games without a point since Jan. 26 to Feb. 2. Eichel has 23 goals and 55 points in 57 outings this year. He ranks seventh in the NHL in scoring since making his season debut Nov. 29.
– Tonight is the 18th of the Sabres’ league-high 19 sets of back-to-back games. The Sabres are 8-7-3 in the first game and 6-10-1 in the second.
– Sabres winger Kyle Okposo (flu) will miss his third straight game.