BUFFALO – Swedish winger Alexander Nylander and his older brother, William, are close. Before the Sabres drafted Alexander eighth overall tonight, he spent the entire day with William, someone he has leaned on for advice throughout the NHL Draft process.
But besides being siblings and friends, Alexander, 18, and William, 20, are now, in many ways, enemies. William plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sabres’ closest and fiercest rival.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against my brother,” an excited Alexander said tonight inside the First Niagara Center. “I think the rivalry is big.”
No kidding. Now, it’s even bigger. In the span of about an hour tonight, the rivalry grew immensely, as the hated Leafs, who have been booed loudly all night, drafted Arizona-born center Auston Matthews first overall.
Just think what games could be like in the near future: Matthews and Sabres center Jack Eichel – the best teenage American players on the planet – and, perhaps someday, the Nylander brothers, who have never played each other.
“It’s going to be really competitive, really fun,” said Alexander, who noted William is the bigger trash talker.
Sporting a blue Sabres jersey with his name and ’16 on the back, Alexander, whose father, Michael, played 920 NHL games, couldn’t hide his excitement.
“It was an unbelievable moment, best moment of my life, big dream come true,” he said.
Nylander knew the Sabres wanted to draft him badly.
“I had a really good feeling since I talked to them before,” he said.
As the picks went off the board, Nylander thought some teams might take him before the Sabres. He mentioned the Calgary Flames, who picked forward Matthew Tkachuk sixth.
“But I had the best feeling with Buffalo,” Nylander said.
The Sabres could have picked Jakob Chychrun or Mikhail Sergachev, two defensemen they were possibly interested in.
While Nylander felt nervous waiting, he said he “enjoyed every minute of it.”
“I was a surreal moment,” he said. “It was a dream come true. I don’t have words to describe the feeling how it was to get drafted.”
Joining the Sabres, Nylander said, is “perfect.” The crowd roared when general manager Tim Murray announced the selection.
“A lot of young players, it’s a really young team,” Nylander said. “They’re trying to build it up now. They’re going to be a very good for next and a great organization.”
Clearly, Nylander already feels comfortable with his new team and in Buffalo. He experienced the city during the NHL Combine earlier this month.
“It’s great,” Nylander said. “I was at the combine, enjoyed every day of it there. I had a couple (days), went sightseeing here. I love Buffalo. It’s a very good city.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Nylander scored 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games with the Mississauga Steelheads in 2015-16, earning Ontario Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League top rookie honors.
“I think I’m a playmaker who’s a game-breaker also and has got very good hockey sense with good vision, able to make plays offensively,” Nylander said. “I think I have the ability to make my linemates better.”
He spent much of his childhood in the United States – he remembers hanging out with Washington star Nicklas Backstrom when his father played for the Capitals – before returning to Sweden about five years ago.
Nylander said he wants to play in the NHL next season.
“I’m trying to work on my strength, get bigger next year, stronger,” he said.