How living with a Blackhawks goalie and his family helps Nylander thrive
It was nearly a decade ago, but goalie Robin Lehner still remembers what it's like for a young pro who is trying to impress new teammates in an unfamiliar city.
The hardest part was actually away from the rink.
Alone in a cheerless hotel room, it's easy to get bored.
Or to brood over a poor practice or game.
Or to get frustrated and depressed, and lose track of your priorities.
So when Blackhawks training camp rolled around, Lehner thought, why not extend an invitation to Alex Nylander to move in with his wife and two children?
Nylander accepted and it seems to be paying dividends for both the 21-year-old forward and the Hawks.
"When I came into the league, older guys helped me out," said Lehner, who was drafted at age 18 by Ottawa in 2009. "My first two, three years in the league I stayed in hotels probably close to nine, 10 months. It's not good. ...
"I've been around a little bit now through the ups and downs. (Better to) kind of calm things down than to go back to your hotel room and ruminate on frustrations. It's nice to share experiences and calm him down after maybe a (rough) game."
After the Sabres drafted Nylander eighth overall in 2016, they elected to assign him to their AHL team in Rochester rather than give him another year in juniors.
Nylander still isn't sure which decision was the right one.
"I made the decision with the staff in Buffalo and my agent and my dad," Nylander said. "They said it was probably best to play my first year in the AHL.
"It's a different league than I was used to playing back in Sweden or in juniors. It was just a good learning experience for me. ... Guys are bigger and stronger; just had to get used to that kind of stuff when I was only 18."
After a second season in the AHL -- one in which he scored 8 goals in 51 games -- Nylander had an impressive training camp and preseason with Buffalo last fall.
But he was again demoted.
Nylander played 49 games in the AHL and 12 for Buffalo in 2018-19. It was beginning to look like he'd be labeled a bust, but Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman saw enough that he decided to acquire Nylander in exchange for defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
Considering the promise Jokiharju showed last season, the trade was -- and still is -- viewed as highly controversial by some.
After a slow start with the Blackhawks, however, there's little doubt that Nylander is beginning to find his stride.
"It happens every year -- players get put in a bad spot in different organizations, and they need a change of scenery so they can get the chances that they need to thrive," said Lehner, who got to know Nylander when he was the Sabres' goalie from 2016-18. "He wasn't given the chance to thrive in Buffalo."
His second chance
Under Jeremy Colliton, the chance to thrive came immediately.
Paired with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the season opener, it took Nylander just seven minutes and 44 seconds to score his first goal with the Hawks. Using his blazing speed, Nylander motored through the neutral zone, settled the puck down once he reached the offensive zone and wristed a shot that beat Flyers goalie Carter Hart to the glove side.
After a rough game against San Jose in the home opener, Colliton elected to scratch Nylander two nights later against Winnipeg.
The young forward's response after that? All he did was come back and score a key third-period goal against Edmonton in a 3-1 victory at the United Center.
Since then, Nylander has added 5 assists, including a highlight-reel one against the Kings Oct. 27 where he lost his balance near the crease, yet managed to slide the puck to a charging David Kampf.
"It was kind of my plan to fake that I was going to shoot it and then pass it," Nylander said. "But as I fell, I was like, 'Oh, I've got to pass this quick before I'm not able to get it through.'"
Nylander credits Toews, Kane and the coaching staff for getting him to realize the kind of hockey player he could become.
He then paused and gave a stick tap to Lehner. And the thing about the Blackhawks' goalie is he's not going to sugarcoat everything.
If Nylander's not hustling or playing smart without the puck, Lehner's going to let him know about it.
"He has a lot of offensive talent, but it's the other part of the game that he needs to get better on," Lehner said. "Which I think he has. Just doing the small things right; playing defense right.
"Just like any young player coming into the league, have a consistency level. ... That's what secures spots in this league.
Said Jeremy Colliton after the Hawks' 5-1 victory over the Kings: "I don't know how many games (in a row) it's been, but I feel quite comfortable with him on the ice. ... When a guy as talented as he is wants to work, he's going to be a pretty good player. I think that's the case right now."
Learning to fly
As the campaign unfolds, Nylander will no doubt experience plenty of highs and lows.
Navigating them, however, will be much easier thanks to his living arrangement. After each game and practice, Nylander gets to walk into a true home -- one that is filled with laughter and love.
Both of Lehner's kids' birthdays came at the end of October, with Lennox turning 5 and sister Zoe turning 2. Nylander, being a good member of his newly adopted family, purchased gifts for both of them.
He said Lennox's was video game related but wouldn't divulge exactly what it was.
"He's great with my kids," Lehner said. "My son loves Fortnite and Alex loves Fortnite too. So they get to play together. ... My son likes him more than he likes me right now."
As for when Nylander's lease is up?
Well, it sounds like that may not be for quite a while.
"He can stay as long as he wants," Lehner said. "He's still fighting for a spot. ...
"We'll see what happens. We'll see when I think the wings have grown out enough and he's ready to move on."
Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks, 9 p.m. Tuesday at the SAP Center
TV: NBC SportsChicago • Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: The reeling Sharks are 1-6-1 in their last eight games and have been outscored 22-8 in their last five. San Jose has yielded the first goal in 11 of its 15 games and is 2-9 in those contests. "It's a problem that's plagued us; we've got to fix it. You can't play from behind in this league and expect to win," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after a 5-2 loss to Vancouver Saturday. "Everybody's got to look in the mirror. There's no cavalry coming." ... San Jose does have the top-ranked penalty kill (89.6 percent) in the league. ... The Sharks beat the Hawks 5-4 at the United Center Oct. 10.
Next: Vancouver Canucks, 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the United Center
-- John Dietz