BUFFALO – In a matter of minutes, coach Chris Taylor noticed a different, more mature Alexander Nylander. Instead of taking a backseat, the slick Sabres prospect started his third pro season acting like a leader.
During the first session of rookie camp Thursday, Nylander, 20, showcased his newfound confidence, leading practice drills.
“He’s leading, he’s going to the front of the lines now,” Taylor said inside HarborCenter. “Before he’d go second, third, maybe last in the lines because he wasn’t sure of himself. Now I think that maturity level, he wants to be here as well.
“He’s another guy that wants to stick (in) the NHL. I really like how big and strong he’s gotten in his maturity level.”
Plenty of talented rookies are participating in the Prospects Challenge tournament, which the Sabres begin tonight against the New Jersey Devils. Perhaps six or seven of the youngsters will play for Buffalo this season.
With prospects such as defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and center Casey Mittelstadt in the Sabres’ arsenal, Nylander, a winger they grabbed eighth overall in 2016, has become a bit overlooked.
In late June, as a groin injury kept Nylander from participating in development camp, Amerks general manager Randy Sexton said the summer would be “critical” for him.
Nylander seems to have gotten the message. He also looks bigger and stronger. The Sabres list him at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, four pounds heavier than last season.
“This is … my third rookie camp,” Nylander said this morning. “I feel like I’ve done it before. I’m trying to be a leader for the other guys like Dahlin and the other guys that are young here. Just show everything on the ice.”
While the enigmatic Swede has played seven NHL games, including three at the end of last season after he found a groove, he has often struggled in the AHL. Through 116 contests with the Rochester Americans, he has compiled only 18 goals and 55 points.
Nylander’s season nearly derailed a year ago at this time, when he suffered a groin injury early in rookie camp. He missed all of the Prospects Challenge and training camp. He finally played his first game Nov. 17.
“Last year was really unfortunate what happened,” he said. “I’m just fortunate I’m here now and I can show the player that I am in this camp and get ready for the season.”
Part of that includes taking charge and looking like a veteran.
“He’s the biggest guy, the maturity level, just passing the puck and how he skates,” Taylor said. “I thought he did a great job.
Nylander added: “It’s a huge little tournament for me”
Earlier in the summer, Dennis Miller, the Sabres’ rehab and development coach, flew to Sweden to work with Nylander.
“Since then it’s been great,” he said of his groin.
He added: “This summer has been really good for me.”
A familiar face could help Nylander throughout the three-game tournament. Sabres prospect Rasmus Asplund, who centered Nylander with Team Sweden at two World Junior Championships, has been pivoting Nylander and right winger Andrew Oglevie early in camp.
“I know he’s been growing a lot, especially off the ice,” Asplund said. “I think he takes a lot of responsibility and he takes care of himself.”