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Buffalo Sabres

Sabres practicing patience with Alex Nylander

Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire

As if the regular season disappointments aren’t enough to give Buffalo Sabres fans reason to chide general manager Tim Murray, the team’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, are suffering similarly. The Amerks are in definite danger of finishing in last place in both the Eastern Conference, and in the league. Only the Hartford Wolfpack have a worse record than Rochester, and there are only two points separating the two.

As with their parent team, the Americans have struggled mightily when it comes to defense. Allowing 3.23 goals per game, Rochester is bottom-five in goals against. Part of their problem is that Buffalo has perpetually picked the pocket of the Americans. Injury issues on the Sabres have caused the team to continually recall Rochester defensemen.

Another issue the Americans face is their lack of scoring. Again, with 2.62 goals for per game, the team is bottom five in goals, with little hope of climbing those depths. Again, Buffalo has had to recall Rochester forwards with startling regularity, frequently pulling Justin Bailey, Nic Baptiste, and Evan Rodrigues up to the NHL.

The team lost their most consistent scorer when Cal O’Reilly requested a trade at the deadline. Second to O’Reilly is Cole Schneider, who averages just over 0.85 points per game, but Schneider is only scoring goals in one out of every three games played.

Like the Sabres, expectations were higher for the Amerks coming into the season. The Sabres had drafted offensive powerhouse Alex Nylander with the eighth overall pick, and the young Swede was destined for Rochester from the start.

Nylander has game-changing goal scoring capabilities, and when playing among his age group, he is a man among boys. There is no lack of confidence, either; the 19-year old forward dubbed himself @snipeshow98 on twitter. The title is accurate, if cocky, but with Sweden’s junior team, it’s been proven true time and time again.

In the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships, Nylander destroyed the competition, scoring 12 points in Sweden’s seven games and was a plus-7 overall for the tournament. Nylander performed similarly in his OHL season with the Mississauga Steelheads, scoring 75 points in 57 games.

Despite scoring 0.49 goals per game, it perhaps should have been alarming that his superior production resulted in only a plus-8 on the season. His goal-scoring production is nearly washed out by the goals he was on the ice for with Mississauga.

Nylander’s two-way woes have stretched into his rookie season as a professional. He’s been named the second-best player not in the NHL by TSN’s Craig Button, who compared him to Joe Pavelski, but statistically, this claim is a bit of a reach. It is little comfort that Nylander’s contemporaries like Matthew Tkachuk, who was drafted just a handful of picks ahead of him, are having a huge impact in the NHL already, while Nylander struggles with his defensive play in the AHL.

With 56 AHL games, Nylander has 25 points, and has yet to crack double-digits in goal scoring. He’s among the worst on the team in plus-minus with a minus-18. His lack of offensive production shows even more when considering his on-ice goal differential. Given that ratio, the Swedish standout has been a drain on production for the Amerks this year.

This is certainly a dense, gray, lake-effect cloud hanging over the Sabres and their AHL affiliate, but this nebulous nimbus has a shining silver lining. Nylander is only 19 years old. There is a lot of hockey to be played by the young star, and it is indisputable that it is too early to be judging Nylander as a bust.

There is no doubt Nylander has a lot to learn about the game, and that there is a big gap between the forward and his ceiling. Buffalo fans are notoriously impatient, and want to see immediate results from their athletes. But what’s best for Nylander, and best for the team, is that he continue to learn the professional game in Rochester, and further develop a better balance to his play.

As soon as that switch flips, and Nylander begins to understand that wins require good defensive play, there will be no stopping him.

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