Sometimes it is about the name on the back of the jersey.
When you talk about projected top 10 NHL Draft pick Alexander Nylander, it’s difficult to avoid mention of his family. His father, Michael, played for seven NHL teams over 15 seasons and his brother, William, is one of the most anticipated prospects in the Toronto Maple Leafs system.
The Nylander name is what makes the average hockey fan instantly take notice of Alexander, but his future will be impacted by more than just his DNA.
Alex was named rookie of the year for both the OHL and CHL this season, his first in North America after crossing over from AIK in Sweden, but he still surprised some with his performance at the Scouting Combine in June. Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce named him one of the “winners” coming out of that weekend, but given that Alex’s dad is also his conditioning coach, maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
Rather than stay in Sweden to play professionally, as brother William did in his draft year, Alex chose to play with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads, where his father is an assistant coach.
“There can be a lot of criticism when players are coached by their parents, but I can tell you, in Alex’s case, he doesn’t get away with anything,” says James Boyd, head coach of the Steelheads. “The thumb is firmly pressed down. Alex is being watched all the time, not only by the fans and media, but by his father.
“Watching him in practice every day, he’s the most skilled player I’ve seen in my years of coaching, and I think that’s a direct result of Michael’s influence.”
It’s easy to consider the negatives of a prospect being coached by his parent: added pressure, favouritism (or the perception of such), the stew of personal and professional. However, there are advantages to consider as well—especially when the parent spent 15 years in the NHL.
“He brings experience,” William Nylander says of his father. “You hear things you don’t get from other parents, things you wouldn’t usually think about otherwise.”
Michael Nylander played in 920 NHL games over his career, which began in 1992–93 with the Hartford Whalers. He scored 679 points as a playmaking forward who skated alongside the likes of Tony Amonte, Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin.
“Michael is a consummate professional,” says Boyd. “There’s no detail that escapes his attention. For Alex, he benefitted from hanging around the rinks when his father was playing [in the NHL], and I imagine he was immersed in that level of detail at the dinner table.”
Alex and William were born in Calgary when Michael played for the Flames—a team that could have a shot at Alex with the sixth-overall pick. The two kids followed Michael from city to city, immersing themselves in local hockey and always standing out among teammates.
If Alex doesn’t end up with Calgary, he could still find a home in Canada with Edmonton and Vancouver, who pick fourth and fifth respectively. Arizona, Buffalo, Montreal and Colorado round out the top 10 and it would be shocking if he isn’t off the board by the end of that run.
The Steelheads finished seventh in the OHL’s Western Conference and Alex led them in scoring with 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games. Mississauga lasted just seven games in the playoffs as the Barrie Colts eliminated them in Round 1, but even though he missed Game 1 with an injury, Nylander led his team in playoff scoring, too, with 12 points in six games played.
He’s been ranked as high as fourth in the draft and Central Scouting put him third among North American-based prospects, behind just Pierre-Luc Dubois and Matthew Tkachuk. During the Stanley Cup Final, Alex made it all the way to Coach’s Corner with the other top-five projected skaters.
“He was one of the top players on the ice each and every game we played,” says Boyd. “In Game 3 [of Mississauga’s playoff series against Barrie], we were down 3–0 in the third period, and when the final buzzer sounded, we won 6–3 and Alex Nylander had four points. That was one of those ‘wow’ moments for me.
“The reason we drafted William was the same reason we drafted Alex. They grew up in North America, they speak perfect English and they know a lot of the players. An import with [almost] no transition [to the North American game], that’s what we were looking for. He picked up the game and had chemistry with his linemates right away.”
So, is Alex the best Nylander of them all?
“I think there are more similarities [between Alex and William] than differences, both on the skill side and the intangible side,” says Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting. “They’re highly driven to succeed, highly confident in their abilities, and I think that projects onto the ice and with teammates.”
Marr mostly watched Alex on the international stage, especially at the Under-18 World Hockey Championship, where he led Sweden in scoring en route to a silver medal.
“Watching him play internationally, the risk-reward choices that he made would be considered a little more risky for a coach’s liking,” says Marr. “But when you have skilled, offensive players like that, you want them taking those risks. What I was really glad to see in his game was that he was a lot more responsible than was anticipated when he came over and played in the OHL… That [puts] him in a very small class of this year’s draft core.
“The book that everybody has on him is that he’s been the same player with the same upside at every level and every competition.”
It’s easy to be drawn to a player who has a blood connection to the NHL, but both Nylander kids still have plenty to prove at the next stage of their careers.
While William has now had a taste of the professional life after spending this season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the next steps for Alex are crucial for him to make a smooth transition from prospective draft pick to valued prospect. The summer before your first NHL training camp is an important time to grow and learn—and prepare for the next test.
“He understands conditioning and he understands nutrition,” Marr says. “I think Alex is on pace with his physical development—you can’t rush physical maturity—but he’s on a similar path as William. It’s just in their DNA.”
Says Boyd: “Alex has a long-term goal he is constantly working towards and that’s obvious.”
Perhaps it’s a bit easier to see the horizon when a path has been set in front of you. But the name on the back of Nylander’s jersey will only define him until he hears his name called at the NHL Draft on June 24. After that, the course of his career will be determined by one person: Alex Nylander.