There is likely very little in common between myself and an 18-year-old kid who was born in Canada, raised in Sweden and has already lived in a few of the United States. But the little we do have in common, as far as I know in this moment, is what led me to write this piece about Buffalo Sabres first-round pick Alexander Nylander
We both spent our Canadian Hockey League careers with the Ontario Hockey League's franchise based out of Mississauga. The Toronto St. Michael's Majors became the Mississauga Majors and are now known as the Steelheads. We both know some people around the rink, and within the Hockey Ops crew, as well as general manager James Boyd.
The 40-year-old native of Mississauga served as the franchise's head coach for the past five seasons and was an associate coach the previous seven under former Ottawa Senators coach Dave Cameron, as well as Bud Stefanski.
As soon as I met Alex Nylander not too long after hearing his name announced by Sabres general manager Tim Murray at the draft, I knew the first call I would be making was to Boyd. I wanted the low down from the man who coached Nylander during his first season in North America.
After Alex was drafted into Buffalo's fold, he did the usual interview gauntlet and then was brought outside First Niagara Center to the stage at Canalside for the NHL Draft Fan Fest. I had been hosting that evening along with Buffalo's own DJ Milk as well as local musicians Vin DeRosa and Vitamin D.
A good crowd had hung around once we informed them a "special guest" would be coming out to greet them shortly. Even as we waited a little longer than we anticipated, not a single Sabres fan left the park until they welcomed their newest prospect.
I greeted Alex backstage and right away the young man of course was all smiles as he was being whisked from place to place, and what stood out to me right away was his eye-to-eye contact at "Hello" and his handshake. It may seem like a small thing to some of you, but it says a lot about where a young man comes from when he takes that moment to connect with whomever he is meeting or speaking to.
When James Boyd and I began our conversation last week, I asked what his first impressions were of Alex when they first met before the start of the 2015-16 OHL season.
Boyd's answer did not surprise me and it also enlightened me as well about whom it is the Sabres are investing some of their future in.
"He was very personable. He's a very polite kid. He looks you in the eye," Boyd said.
That's all nice to hear, but it's the second part of the response that realty caught my attention.
"He's a happy kid, but when he gets to the rink he can flip the switch, he becomes all business," Boyd said.
So what is that business to Alex Nylander?
"He is focused on precision and detail."
And much like last year's first round picker Jack Eichel, Boyd tells me when Nylander misses and shot he does not take it lightly.
"He is trying to score on every shot in practice and he is trying to get faster every time he is in the gym."
Boyd knows the Nylander hockey genes very well. He and the Steelheads drafted Alex's brother William (now with the Leafs organization), in the import draft the previous year. And this past season, their father Michael, who played over 900 NHL games with seven franchises, was part of Boyd's coaching staff.
(Michael, it should be noted also played seven games for the Rochester Americans in 2010-11. He scored four goals and had six points.)
All the Nylander children are good kids according to Boyd, who had a chance since the draft to take in a tennis match between Alex and his tennis-playing sister in Mississauga. Even in this scenario, once the match, started Alex was all business.
Boyd says the 18 year old is "ultra-competitive. You would have thought it was Wimbledon."
Another aspect of this young man's makeup that should be a strength when it comes to trying to fit in with older players at the professional level of hockey is that he is well-rounded.
"He has a lot more worldly experience than say some of the other young guys in the OHL," Boyd says.
Having been in an NHL locker room and seen only a piece of the dynamics that come into play amongst teammates and men, I can't help but think that a multi-lingual young man who has grown up around the world and around hockey his entire life is going to find a way to fit in inside a multi-national room quicker than someone who has perhaps seen only one tiny piece of the planet we all share.
|(Photo Credit: Getty Images) |
From a coach's perspective, I wanted to find out from James what kind of student this worldly and competitive kid was last season. I asked if Alex was someone who was asking a lot of questions during his first season in North America.
His OHL coach says, "His questions were few and far between, but excellent questions."
When I heard that chuckle at the end of James's answer I couldn't help but think back to the Stanley Cup Final shots of the Penguins' bench watching the heated or very engaged banter between Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby – banter which eventually led them to being Stanley Cup champions.
You can't help but try and envision Eichel and Nylander having the same conversations not too far down the road.
So the question we all have right now, and can't wait to find out the answer to: Is this young man pro hockey ready? Boyd says Alex definitely is.
"There are players who think they know what it takes, well Alex knows what it takes," he said.
The ingredient here goes back to being around hockey his entire life: Growing up with his dad's travels around the NHL as well as being around his brother's journey and playing pro in the American League and 22 NHL games in Toronto last season.
Another ingredient that Boyd says Alex has that will undoubtedly aid him in making that next step into pro hockey is his confidence.
I described to James how I view the progression of Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. A polite, very talented, confident but not overly cocky player who wants to get better every day he is on the ice.
Boyd replied about Alex, "I'd say he is super confident in his abilities, and he has a certain swagger to him, but he is not a jerk at all. He is respectful toward everyone else, he respects the game, and he knows he can do it."
On so many levels, it does sound like the Sabres scouting staff and general manager Tim Murray landed themselves a player who has all the tools and the drive it would seem, to be a solid NHL forward. He has all the skill you want in a player at his position, and Boyd also pointed out Alex is not a one-trick pony when it comes to making adjustments in-game when a defenseman or goalie thinks they have him figured out.
While I had Boyd on the line, I also wanted to ask about the other Steelheads player Buffalo drafted.
East Aurora's Austin Osmanski was selected by the Sabres in the seventh round, (189th overall). He is a left-handed D-man who recently turned 18.
"Hard worker" were the first two words out of his coach's mouth when I asked what kind of player and person Austin is. Like any first year OHL players, there was an adjustment period for Austin in Mississauga.
James says Osmanski is "continuously improving, willing to put the work in." For Mississauga he is a regular-shift player, who plays the penalty kill as a shutdown guy.
Boyd says based on what he has seen from Austin with the type of size he has, and the skating and willingness to spend time in the gym, "there is no doubt he has a chance to play pro hockey."
Where Nylander and Osmanski's ceilings are is yet to be determined, but in the few short weeks since the draft, it appears Buffalo has found themselves two quality prospects they can begin to mold, starting with this week's development camp at HARBORCENTER.