BUFFALO – Why now? Why did the Sabres recall top forward prospect Alexander Nylander on Monday of all days, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and his brother, slick rookie William Nylander, in town?
On one hand, the night was 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, only increased with his high-scoring sibling in town with the scorching Leafs.
“It’s kind of crazy I’m going to play against my brother my first game,” Nylander told more than 20 reporters prior to the Sabres’ 4-2 loss to the Leafs inside KeyBank Center. “I’m super excited, very pumped.”
The recall created an early buzz in the rink and put the spotlight on Nylander, the eighth overall pick in 2016, in the morning.
“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.
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,” said Nylander, who wore No. 70.
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.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound 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 (he’s) just (19) years old. It’s a big challenge for him.”
What could help Nylander thrive in the NHL is the league’s structure, which is much more rigid than the AHL.
“Alex is a talented, skilled player,” Bylsma said. “He’s got deception in his game, both from his shot and his playmaking ability. Yes, I think there’s a good chance you’ll see him have maybe a little more success than he’s had so far this year in Rochester.”
Bylsma played Nylander on the right wing with center Evan Rodrigues and Marcus Foligno.
Nylander said his father Michael, who made 920 NHL appearances, and his entire family attended the game.
To make room for Nylander, Bylsma scratched winger Matt Moulson for the first time this season.
Monday was the Sabres’ third straight game with a brother on the other side. Sabres captain Brian Gionta faced Stephen Gionta in Sunday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders. Foligno faced Nick Foligno in last Tuesday’s 3-1 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sabres winger Kyle Okposo (flu) missed his third straight game. Meanwhile, Sabres defenseman Cody Franson (hyperextended joint) returned from a six-game absence. Justin Falk was scratched.