Alex Nylander will be making his season debut this evening against the Ottawa Senators and his recall has drummed up quite a bit of debate from fans of the Sabres and their AHL affiliate.
Nylander’s year has been quite forgettable. A groin injury during the Prospects Challenge wound up costing him the early months of the campaign and he was still hobbled upon returning. His performance at the World Junior Championship was deemed pedestrian despite averaging a point per game. It wasn’t until the spring that his game seemed to round into form, seeing him register a stretch in which he registered 15 points in 15 games. That still leaves his numbers well below what you’d expect of a top-10 selection with plenty of questions about his status with the organization moving forward.
His 28 point (10+18) season in 2016-17 wasn’t met with celebration or concern as it ranked square in the middle of U20 players playing in the AHL. However, the lack of a step forward this season has raised red flags. Prompting questions to be asked about the logic of his recall for the final three games of the Sabres season.
While he may not have earned his recall, the decision to do so offers management the opportunity to add to their evaluation of his developmental arc.
There are a host of reasons to be skeptical of Nylander’s developmental progress and just where exactly he factors in to the Sabres plans in the future. He hasn’t shown nearly enough of the scoring touch he did with OHL Mississauga and his lack of jam has left many fans sour on his long-term outlook. Couple that with the false start to this season and subsequent cold streak that stretched into 2018 and there’s plenty of reason for concern.
However, there is some benefit to Nylander’s situation. First off, the fact that he’s warmed up this spring could be an indication that his injury hampered him more than we were led to believe. Second, his contract status is very club friendly. His entry-level deal won’t officially trigger until the fall, meaning the Sabres still have three years before they even have to consider him for an extension. So even though this season was a lost one, it was a freebie in a way, giving the Sabres more time to evaluate the 2016 selection.
What I appreciate about Jason Botterill’s decision to recall Nylander is that tonight’s game – and conceivably the weekend as well – will offer a glimpse at how he performs against NHL talent. These three games won’t determine his fate with the organization but offer an additional status update for the decision makers to consider as they evaluate their pipeline.
The Sabres season has been lost for some time. These games are about as meaningless as they come, so inserting Nylander into them doesn’t represent some sort of grand gesture to reward his play. This allows for an in-person temperature check against competition that’s (arguably) better than he’s been seeing on a nightly basis.
Exactly how much will be gleaned from these games is hard to determine. In such a small sample an explosive performance won’t rate all that much higher than a dud, but each would certainly help paint the bigger picture when it comes to Nylander’s future. This strikes me as a move that’s done with his outlook on the summer (and AHL postseason) in mind. Is he going to be able to continue to raise his game to where it needs to be or is he still stagnating? Getting even a brief look at him in NHL games adds some additional nuance to the overall evaluation being done on his season which already included the Prospect Challenge, WJC and the AHL season.
It’s all part of the larger developmental process. And that process is magnified when you have a top-10 pick with question marks floating around him.