Penguins looking to Nylander for spark

KDP Photography

📝 by Patrick Williams

To qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will need newly acquired forward Alex Nylander to take on a major role in their lineup.

Nylander needs the Penguins as well in what is a crucial opportunity in his career. The 23-year-old arrived in Northeastern Pennsylvania after the parent Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 5 in a deal for forward Sam Lafferty. But with Pittsburgh ripping through the National Hockey League with 12 wins in 14 games dating to Dec. 4, the organization can afford to have Nylander hone his two-way game in the American Hockey League.

“We’re trying to find our way here, battle out of a hole,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach J.D. Forrest said, adding that Nylander “can help us a lot.”

The trade ended a challenging stint in the Chicago organization that had started promisingly enough for Nylander. Chosen eighth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres, Nylander had landed with Chicago via a July 2019 deal for defenseman Henri Jokiharju. In 2019-20, his first full NHL season, Nylander delivered 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 65 regular-season games for the Blackhawks.

But a torn meniscus in his left knee sustained in Chicago’s first-round playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights in August 2020 halted that progress. After rest failed to improve the knee’s health, Nylander had surgery that cost him his entire 2020-21 season.

This past fall Nylander found himself back in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. He produced in Rockford and ultimately finished with 12 points (eight goals, four assists) in 23 contests, but a 1-9-2 start in Chicago meant that the organization was looking to go in a different direction.

“I really thought that I was taking the right steps in the right direction, but I had surgery,” Nylander said. “I think this [trade] has been good for me and especially coming to this this organization I think is really going to help me get to where I want to be.”

Everyone knows that Nylander with the puck means having a creative offensive asset. But as with so many high-end prospects, it will be his play without the puck that will ultimately help him to break into the Pittsburgh lineup. Providing that education has long been one of the AHL’s top tasks.

“The skill is evident,” Forrest began in his early assessment of Nylander. “When he has the puck on his stick, he can be a dangerous player. He’s able to find some holes. He certainly has that ability, that elite skill. I’d like to see him maybe shoot a little bit more, because he is an offensive threat.

“It’s just a matter of having to get used to the type of pace that the Pittsburgh organization wants to play and find some real consistency.”

Nylander knows that reality as well.

“[The objective] is to get up to the NHL level and be the player I know I can be and keep working down here,” Nylander said. “It’s been great here so far, and everybody’s been really good. So, I need to keep doing what I’m doing, and eventually good stuff will happen when I do that. And when I get my chance, I obviously [have] got to take it, too.”

This past weekend the Penguins made some progress. At 11-15-1-3 (.433), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is trying to dig out from the standings damage created by an eight-game winless slide (0-7-0-1) that ended with a decisive 5-2 road win against the rival Lehigh Valley Phantoms this past Saturday night. A day later, the Penguins put away their biggest nemesis, the visiting Hershey Bears, in a hard-fought 2-1 effort. A weekend that had started with a hard-luck 4-3 home loss to the Phantoms in which the Penguins had outshot the visitors, 42-16, ended with wins in two of three outings.

Forrest used Nylander on the left side of a line with center Sam Poulin and Jan Drozg. Nylander scored his second goal of the weekend in the win against Hershey, a first-period power-play strike that took him 10 goals to go with his seven assists through 29 games between Rockford and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; since the deal, he has five points (two goals, three assists) in six AHL contests.

Now Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is staring down another challenging week with the Phantoms returning on Wednesday night followed by a Friday-Saturday home set with the Toronto Marlies. The schedule hardly lightens up the rest of the month with three dates against the Cleveland Monsters ― two of them on the road ― and a trip to Hershey to close out January. The Penguins then face a February that will feature 13 games in 26 nights.

In the short- to mid-term picture, Nylander finding his way brightens Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s postseason chances. If all goes well with that process, it can mean a better long-term NHL outlook for a talented, creative playmaker. Laying the groundwork for that process will fall in part to Forrest, particularly with a player who has faced a challenging career path so far.

“The first part is to see where he’s at, what he expects from the situation that he’s in now,” Forrest said. “He’s been with a couple of different teams. He’s now in a new organization. What are his expectations? How does he think it’s going to be different this time?

“Is there something…that he needs to adjust that will give him the information that I know about him as a player and about what we’re looking for in our players? And more specifically, if he has the aspiration of playing in Pittsburgh, which I’m sure he does, how exactly is he going to do that? How it can be different this time around?

“So, we’ll have those conversations, and I’ll try to just give him the information, tools, and resources between myself, [assistant coach] Kevin Porter, and the development staff to try to give him the best chance possible. A lot of this stuff is up to the individual. But I think when you provide them with the right resources, certainly it’s going to help.

“He’s got plenty of career ahead of him. It’s just how he wants to take the next step forward. Hopefully, we come up with a plan that that works for him and can help elevate his game and put him in a position where he wants to be.”