Sweden was already my favorite to win the 2018 world juniors, but now the Tre Kronor look even more dangerous thanks to the Buffalo Sabres.
Alex Nylander, who has already played in two WJC tournaments, amassing 21 points in 14 cumulative games, will be loaned out by the Sabres. It’s an added bonus for both Sweden and local fans, since Buffalo is hosting the holiday classic.
But what sort of impact should we expect from Nylander?
It’s been a tough road for the talented right winger, who was hurt during Buffalo’s rookie camp, thus missing a shot at Sabres’ main camp. Nylander was eventually assigned to AHL Rochester, where the 2016 first-rounder hasn’t exactly set the league on fire. In 15 games, the rookie pro has six points and is a minus-9 on a team full of plus players.
Now, making the jump from juniors to the pro ranks is very hard, but this is Nylander’s second campaign with the Rochester Americans and his first dalliance was pretty up-and-down, too.
Which is not to say that he has no future. If anything, perhaps the world junior experience will help recalibrate Nylander, allowing him to rediscover the things that have made him successful in the past: great vision, instincts and hands, not to mention his skating ability.
If Nylander takes on the world juniors with bigger goals in mind, it could really help his development. Because we know he’ll be able to score in the tournament. The Swedes are blessed with other top-end forwards such as Elias Pettersson, Lias Andersson and Jesper Boqvist this year, so offense will not be a problem.
But the Swedes have consistently fallen short of expectations in the past few tournaments, often finishing fourth after cruising through the round robin. This is where Nylander, as an elder statesman, can truly have an impact. If he can be a leader in that room, perhaps the Swedes can find the steel necessary to get over those medal-round mental blocks that have dogged them so persistently. One recent example of this is when Ottawa loaned Curtis Lazar to Canada for the 2015 world juniors in Toronto. While the Canadians got plenty of offense from the likes of Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid, Lazar brought his experience to a team that hadn’t won gold in years and Canada managed to snap its drought.
On the other hand, there will certainly be a ton of pressure on Nylander, playing in front of Sabres fans – many of whom are probably wondering why he hasn’t claimed a roster spot on their basement-dwelling team yet. Can he perform in the clutch? Because it doesn’t matter if Nylander is hanging five points Belarus; he needs to be at his best against the Canadians, Americans and Russians when medals are on the line.
Going back to Canada, I’m reminded of 2013 when the Canucks got the services of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins thanks to the NHL lockout. ‘The Nuge’ led the tournament in scoring, but went pointless in a semifinal blowout loss to the eventual gold medallists from Team USA. Canada then went on to lose bronze in overtime to the host Russians, though that game was pretty tight.
Nylander can’t just put up big numbers; he needs to be getting better as the tournament goes on and the competition gets stronger. If he can do that and deliver Sweden its first gold medal since 2012 – or its first medal of any color since 2014 – then the loan will be perfect. If not, it’s going to be another foreboding sign for the youngster.