Draft-eligible forward Alex Nylander finished his first season of OHL hockey with 75 points in 57 games for the Mississauga Steelheads.
He’s expected to go somewhere in the top half of the first round this summer, with most pundits listing him in the top 10. His scoring, playmaking, and international play – the 18-year-old forward put up nine points in seven games for Team Sweden at the U20 World Junior Championships this past winter – suggest that the NHL club that picks him up will have a very good player, and they’ll have it very soon.
Maybe the best advantage those teams will have, though, will be his early AHL eligibility.
Rare for CHL imports, Nylander spent last season on loan for the Steelheads; he’s still, technically, under contract in Sweden, and therefore isn’t bound by the traditional CHL-NHL agreement limiting players from hitting the AHL before they turn 20.
In other words, he’s eligible for the AHL as soon as the team that drafts him sees it fit.
Next year, that may not be an issue. Although over a point-per-game in a pre-draft season is excellent, another year of major junior hockey may be exactly what the younger Nylander brother needs. His ability to hone his playmaking skills and find shooting lanes at the CHL level can be improved with another year in Mississauga, if he and his family determine that’s the best course of action.
The following year, though, he could find himself in an enviable position.
A handful of players during the 2015-16 season were left in a sort of player limbo. Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner of the London Knights, Mathew Barzal of the Seattle Thunderbirds, and Pavel Zacha of the Sarnia Sting were all playing at almost too high a level for the major juniors, but likely would have struggled at the NHL level. They all returned to the CHL for the season, with no other option for a developmental league.
Nylander won’t be backed into a corner like that.
If the team that drafts him feels the CHL will serve as a poor quality of competition either this year or next, they won’t have to make a tough choice between playing him in sheltered roles in the NHL – which the Vancouver Canucks did with Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen with very limited success – or sending him back to his junior club to skate circles around the competition.
They’ll be able to place him in the AHL, where he’ll have a higher quality of competition, tougher situations, and potential call-up ability to the NHL if needed.
This isn’t common for European CHL players, but the few who do join the major junior league on loan agreements from their overseas clubs are afforded a unique opportunity.
The most prominent recent example of this was Finnish-born blue liner Julius Honka, who was able to leave the Swift Current Broncos after his first season of major junior hockey to play for the AHL’s Texas Stars.
The defenseman has since remained exclusively at the minor league level, but it’s clearly been the best place for him. With a whopping 44 points in 73 regular season games for the Texas Stars this year – including an impressive 158 recorded shots on goal from the blue line – the 20-year-old defenseman is clearly playing in a league where he’s able to excel without feeling underwhelmed.
It’s clear that there’s plenty of benefit to drafting Nylander just based on his talent alone.
With 55 of his 75 points coming as goals or primary assists, the left winger is clearly an asset. While his shooting volume could still go up, his overall playmaking ability – and scoring prowess – are something an NHL club will covet when he lands in their pocket in a few weeks’ time.
Having the opportunity to draft a player with an accelerated development path, though, is an asset that teams won’t want to overlook. Where other top ten prospects will be trapped by their circumstances – playing in the CHL for an extra year or two or having to make the immediate jump to the NHL in one of their two post-draft years – Nylander will have options.
His club will be able to track his development and place him in the league that will best serve him in the long run (and, as a result, serve them in the long run, as well).
The teams that could best benefit from this? It would be foolish of the Vancouver Canucks not to consider what this kind of situation could do for the club, particularly after their fiascos with McCann and Virtanen in 2015-16.
The Calgary Flames may also want to capitalize on this opportunity, especially with a club they hope to be competitive sooner rather than later. Even the Arizona Coyotes could benefit from this, although they may want to draft a blue liner instead of a forward with the first of their two first-round picks this spring.
The best situation would be for the NHL and the CHL to re-work their agreement, allowing for exceptional circumstances to see players leave for the AHL early. With that kind of solution still a distant dream on the horizon, though, Nylander is a prospect with an added dimension to his value this summer.
It’s hard to imagine a team not loving that thought.