The Blackhawks were one of the most successful teams in the previous decade, winning three Stanley Cups between 2010 and 2015, then trying to extend that contention window for at least two more seasons after that third title. The price of chasing success was both lower quality draft picks and/or loss of top-end drafted talent, the latter usually for salary cap reasons (Teuvo Teravainen) or for win-now type of trade acquisitions (Phillip Danault). As a result, the Blackhawks’ has been forced to find talent elsewhere. Chicago often turned to reclamation projects in its talent search by acquiring former first-round picks who’d fallen out of favor with their parent clubs — a good strategy, considering the aforementioned loss Chicago’s own first-round picks.
So let’s talk about one of the most controversial reclamation projects of general manager Stan Bowman’s tenure: Alex Nylander. Although he’s a restricted free agent this offseason, it certainly seems likely that he’ll be back on a cheap contract for the ‘21-22 season.
The reason Nylander is controversial is primarily because while he had obvious top-six talent, he failed to use it consistently and his play away from the puck left much to be desired. That’s not to say that the price of his acquisition — Henri Jokiharju, a highly touted defensive prospect already with NHL experience at 20 — didn’t impact Nylander’s reception in Chicago, but his performance on the ice didn’t do enough to silence his doubters.
That’s why it was so unfortunate that Nylander missed the entire 2021 season after having knee surgery, because his rookie season wasn’t without merit and it would’ve been good to see how he addressed some of his issues in the offseason. On top of that, Nylander would have been a good fit for the youth-filled roster, something many of the rookie forwards this past season thrived on.
In any case, let’s take a look at how Nylander performed in his solo season in Chicago.
Note: The following chart is from Evolving-Hockey (one of the best resources for hockey data).
Offensively, Nylander had a decent season with 0.4 points-per-game or 32-33 points over an 82-game regular season, which is on par with the low end of second-line winger production in the NHL over the last 5 seasons and near the high end for third-line wingers. This lines up with his offense being average (51st percentile) with potential to be better considering his expected even-strength offense goals above replacement (xEVO) exceeded his actual by a fair margin. Contextually, his usage was all over the place due to his inconsistent play, getting time with Patrick Kane in the top-six and with David Kampf on the fourth line. Ultimately, he faced below average quality of competition (48th percentile) and received a fairly even split for zone deployment (51.52 percentage of offensive-zone starts), and with the seventh best offensive player for the Blackhawks in ‘19-20.
In comparison to the rookie forwards the ‘21 season who played at least ten games, Nylander’s PPG rate would’ve been third behind Pius Suter (0.49) and Brandon Hagel (0.46) while his PP/60 would be tied for first with Hagel (1.98). Nylander actually edges both when talking about 5-on-5 production: his 1.96 PP/60 and 6.2 xEVO is decently better than 1.57 and 5.2 for Suter and 1.51 and 2.3 for Hagel. This edge is likely due to Nylander’s transition being better than either of these two as he was in the 78th percentile or better for entries and exits stats while Suter and Hagel are typically between 55-65th percentile.
For further context, Nylander’s transition numbers would have put him behind only Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat this past season, both 85th percentile or above.
Nylander was less successful when it came to shot contributions, whether through shot assists or shot attempts, but still around or slightly above league average (53rd and 55th percentile). These lower numbers are likely a big reason why Nylander’s overall offense was middle-six rather than top-six. This is where some frustration with Nylander comes in, because his skill was a tease: you can clearly see when his passing and shooting works and it’s borderline elite, but he just didn’t do it enough and/or was too slow to react to situations. Sometimes it felt like Nyalnder’s brain just wasn’t quite up to NHL speed yet despite the obvious talent.
However, the bigger concern for Nylander was his lack of defensive awareness and unforced errors with the puck in the neutral zone. Nylander’s actual and expected even-strength defense goals above replacement were both negative, and as a result he was only in the 32nd percentile for the league. His on-ice awareness and coverage of opposing players was often substandard and frustrating to watch. And while giveaways tracked by the NHL isn’t the most accurate stat, his giveaways per 60 rate (1.96) was third among Blackhawks forwards in ‘19-20 and lined up with what we saw: Nylander would often either make an ill-advised pass that was easily picked off or he’d try to force his way through opposing players with the puck stripped from him, especially in the neutral zone.
The big question for Nylander going into the 2021-22 season is: will he be able to carve out a place in the lineup with how many other young players are vying for a spot as well? Again, he compared well with the other top rookies offensively, so the answer is really depending on how much Nylander is willing to be consistently engaged with and without the puck. He shouldn’t be handed a top-six role and his leash should be shorter than it was previously, but Nylander definitely needs another chance to realize his potential. At 23 years old, he still has time to pull it altogether — although the clocking is ticking faster.