The Jekyll and Hyde Play of Alexander Nylander
Flashes of brilliance in Alexander Nylander’s offensive game give hope that he can be a true top-six forward, but inconsistency and carelessness leave doubts about whether or not he can live up to those expectations.
Last summer, Blackhawks’ general manager Stan Bowman traded defenseman Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for winger Alexander Nylander. Shipping away a young defenseman who was ready to step into a full-time role on an NHL blue line for a project of a forward who only had a cup of coffee at the highest level was questionable at the time, and that sentiment remains the case today.
After playing in just 19 games over parts of three seasons in Buffalo, Nylander got his first extended look in the NHL with the Blackhawks during the 2019-20 campaign. The 22-year-old forward showed flashes of offensive craftiness but also reaffirmed some of the previous knocks on his game when it came to effort level and on-ice awareness.
There’s no denying that Alexander Nylander has some god-given hockey talent — he’s the son of former Blackhawk Michael Nylander and brother of current Toronto Maple Leaf William Nylander. Smooth skating, natural playmaking ability, and quick hands were on display when Alexander Nylander was at his best this season.
His feel for the game in the offensive zone allows him to find the scoresheet in a variety of ways, whether it be through nifty stickhandling to beat a goalie, a quick release on his shot, or using his vision and hands to set up fellow teammates. Of the aforementioned abilities, perhaps the most underutilized element of Nylander’s game this past season was his shot. Highlights from his junior hockey days showcased his ability to be a sniper, and he’s just scratching the surface of that skillset at the NHL level.
If Nylander can find the soft areas of the ice more frequently and continue to gain trust from his teammates, he has the tools to become a consistent threat from the top of the circles. Growth in this area would help the Blackhawks both at even strength and on the power play.
His playmaking ability goes beyond just potting goals for himself, however. Nylander’s handiwork was also on display in his ability to creatively dish to teammates. Of his 16 assists during the 2019-20 season, this may have been the prettiest.
It may be cliche to say, but it’s true in this case — the raw ability is there for Nylander to become a top-six offensive forward. Further experience playing alongside the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat will only help him further grow his game.
Over 65 contests in the 2019-20 season, Alexander Nylander logged 26 points (ten goals, 16 assists), good for eighth among all Blackhawks skaters. For a first full season in the NHL, that’s not a bad haul. There’s no doubt he has the talent to bump up those numbers next season, but he will have to be on the ice longer than 12:08 per game to make it happen. That brings us to the deficiencies Nylander must improve upon going forward.
It’s no secret that Alexander Nylander is an offensive-minded player. Given his skill set, he absolutely should be. However, that’s no excuse for making egregious mistakes in the defensive zone or letting his effort level slide. Nylander must make significant improvements in a couple of key areas to become a consistently reliable player, the first of which is eliminating lackadaisical play.
One of the biggest knocks on Nylander’s game has been his motor. During his time with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, he often did not play with a competitive edge to stand out among the crowd. Sabres fans voiced their displeasure with Nylander appearing unfocused or disinterested at times. That same mentality led to several lapses during his first season in Chicago.
Making the simple play should be just that, simple. Any player’s neglect in this area will cost his teammates, and Nylander seemed to be at the center of that issue far too often.
Plays such as the one shown above are an easy way to get in a coach’s doghouse, and Nylander found himself in Jeremy Colliton‘s bad graces on a number of occasions. There were stretches of games throughout the season in which Nylander’s ice time would dip below the ten-minute mark because Colliton did not believe he could rely on the young forward.
Prior to a decent five-game stretch that ended up being the last contests the Blackhawks would play before the season was suspended, Nylander endured a six-game stretch of ice time below ten minutes.
With the Blackhawks fighting for their mathematical playoff lives during that time, Colliton did not feel he could trust Nylander. A nice bounce-back game against Anaheim on March 3rd resulted in an uptick of ice time over the next five-game stretch, but these inconsistencies were a theme all year with Nylander. In order for him to be a maximally effective player for the Blackhawks going forward, he must avoid making careless mistakes that cost him shifts.
Another area in which Nylander must improve is his willingness to track down pucks wherever he may be on the ice. It’s easy to go all-out in order to keep a power-play chance alive in the offensive zone, but that mentality needs to be present in all situations.
Perhaps a frustrated Pat Foley on the call makes that play look and sound worse than it actually is, but the reality of the situation is that Nylander’s puck retrieval efforts were not up to par overall this season.
Another gripe about Nylander from the Buffalo crowd was his timidness when it comes to physical play. Nobody expects him to throw his body all over the ice, but he can’t be afraid of contact. Being able to brace for a hit in order to manufacture a defensive zone breakout will help him cut down on avoidable turnovers. Additionally, he must be willing to tie up with opponents along the boards to help his team win more puck battles.
Beyond that, he can utilize his stick more in order to retrieve pucks. If he can learn a bit from fellow youngster Kirby Dach on becoming a pick-pocket, he will certainly be more effective at winning the puck back due to his already quick hands.
While defense will likely never be a strong suit of Nylander’s game, improved techniques and playing at an all-around higher effort level will result in better individual and team results on the ice.
Flashes of brilliance in Alexander Nylander’s offensive game give hope that he can be a true top-six forward, but inconsistency and carelessness leave doubts about whether or not he can live up to those expectations. His entry-level contract expires after the 2020-21 season, so he must be willing to take those next steps in his game if he wants to earn a contract to his liking — whether that be in Chicago or somewhere else.