Pens finding a little youth among all the veterans

Alex Nylander impressed Pens coaches with his improvement
Alex Nylander skating v CBJ
Photo credit Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) – The Pens are the oldest and smallest team in the NHL, that’s not a formula for sustained success. Lost in the inconsistent play of living each result as if the Pens will make or miss the playoffs-a couple of younger forwards are emerging.

Forward Drew O’Connor has solidified a spot in the starting 12. The 6’3”, 200-pound New Jersey native already as played a career-high 30 NHL games with five goals and three assists. We’ve discussed his progress and will going forward. But he’s not the only one who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year and showing promise to be a part of the future.

Alex Nylander was acquired in the Sam Lafferty trade with the Blackhawks last January. The 25-year-old has some pedigree being the Sabres eighth overall pick in 2016 and it seems like his made some changes to his game that are getting noticed.

“I think I’ve been learning a lot this year down there,” Nylander told 93.7 The Fan of playing for the Pens WBS team in the AHL. “Really been consistent with my game. Just trying to work really hard without the puck and get open when I don’t have it. I work on those small things. I think it starts with my skating. Try to show them I can be on this team and be at the NHL level.”

That work has paid off in a professional high of 25 goals and 25 assists in just 54 games on a struggling Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team. He mentioned the consistency, he’s had two pointless streaks this year-one of three games and another of two. That’s it, he has a point in 37 of the WBS Penguins games this season.

Salary cap reasons have blocked more opportunities, but he got his first call-up since 2020 earlier this week and had an assist before having to be sent down again. At 6’1”, approaching 200 pounds he brings more size and Pens head coach Mike Sullivan was enthusiastic when discussing how he played.

“The coaches were really impressed with Alex’s game,” Sullivan said. “We knew he was a guy that could make plays. He had good offensive instincts. That’s the strength of his game, but what really impressed us was his 200-foot game. His game away from the puck, some of the details.”

“His strength along the walls, protecting pucks. He made good decisions with the puck, he wasn’t a high-risk player. That’s an important aspect of winning, making sure that you make good decisions when you have the puck so you don’t put your teammates in vulnerable spots.”

“I thought he made some decisions coming through the neutral zone with the puck where there wasn’t a lot going on and he was willing to play behind our opponents’ defensemen and tried to create offense different ways. He didn’t force things that weren’t there. I thought his play away from the puck was pretty solid. His recognition skills. His details whether it be D-zone coverage or face-off responsibilities, he was locked in.”

“There was a lot of growth there and he deserves a lot of credit for that. I think our coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre have done a good job with Alex in trying to impress upon him the importance of that in establishing himself as a regular NHL player. We were really impressed with his game. We thought he had a real solid game for us.”

“It means a lot,” Nylander said. “I just try to do what I did, keep it simple and work really hard. I know the rest will come. I know that I can play in this league. It was three years ago the last time I played in the NHL. That’s my goal, to be here the rest of the time.”

Jason Zucker, Danton Heinen, Josh Archibald and Nick Bonino will all be free agents after the season. Nylander played 65 games in the NHL with Chicago in 2019-20 and even if he doesn’t spend the rest of this season in the NHL, he’s opening eyes. He should be a part of helping an aging team find an affordable, youthful piece that already knows the system.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports