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Alex Nylander leaving family’s shadow behind ahead of 2016 draft

The heir to one of Swedish hockey’s thrones is playing his way out of his family’s shadow and into the spotlight.

You’re easily forgotten when your father, Michael Nylander, is a two-time World Championship gold medalist and Sweden’s 13th highest scoring NHL player of all-time and your older brother, William, is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ next big thing.

But Alex, the youngest of the Nylander clan, is making a name for himself away from home ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft.

Now 17, Alex has joined the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Mississauga Steelheads.

A rookie, Alex came to the OHL to get noticed in one of the NHL’s biggest feeder leagues.

Back home, everyone in the Swedish hockey world knows who the Nylanders are. Even Alex’s uncle Peter – a 356-game veteran of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Sweden’s top professional level – is famous.

Sweden wasn’t always home though. Born in Calgary while Michael played for the Flames, Nylander grew up playing in North America. That familiarity has helped ease his transition to the OHL according to Steelheads head coach James Boyd. 

“He (Alex) doesn't have to get used to the ice surface or the culture, he speaks perfect English,” Boyd said in an interview before Wednesday’s game against the Ottawa 67’s. 

The transition hasn’t distanced him from his family either. Michael has joined the Steelheads as an assistant coach and William, an eighth overall pick to the Leafs in 2014, plays nearby with the Toronto Marlies.

That familiarity, and having his dad behind the bench, has made the transition seamless, Boyd said. In fact, Alex is the team’s leading scorer.

“He’s got a very accurate shot, he’s got great hands, he’s poised with the puck, he’s an elusive skater, he can twist and turn in tight and get himself out of trouble,” Boyd said, adding that comparisons to his brother are warranted. “He’s very much like his brother William with his skillset – exciting to watch.” 

Wednesday night, the 67’s saw it first-hand.

Used on the penalty kill (rare for a top prospect), Nylander broke up two Ottawa chances early in the first period. And he was just getting started.

A shift later, Nylander intercepted the puck behind the net and carried it out in front, spinning and firing a shot off his backhand under the crossbar to give the Steelheads the 1-0 lead.

After the teams traded goals, with Drake Rymsha and Montreal Canadiens prospect Jeremiah Addison scoring for the 67’s and fellow top 2016 NHL Draft prospect Sean Day for the Steelheads, Nylander took over again.

On his first shift of the second period, Nylander nearly scored his second of the game with a shot that just missed the crossbar before creating chances for teammates Austin Osmanski and Josh Burnside a shift later.

After his team regained the lead in the third, Nylander could be seen bouncing on the bench as he waited for his next shift. That intensity, it turns out, runs in the family.

“Mike’s an intense, intense dude,” Boyd said of his new assistant coach, raising his eyebrows. “He’s passionate about hockey.”

Late in the third, Nylander was rewarded for his enthusiasm with a goal on a delayed penalty. With it, the game finished just as it started with a Nylander goal.

Despite the two-goal night though, the young Swede was tough on himself.

“I played okay today but our team was playing really good,” Alex said following the win, noting that he’s lucky to have played at last year’s Under-17 World Championships in Sarnia, Ont., where he was able to acclimatize himself to the North American game. 

67’s head coach Jeff Brown was more complimentary.

“He’s (Alex) a good player, skilled player, you’ve got to be hard on him, you've got to finish checks on him,” Brown said. “It’s disappointing to have a guy like that come into our building and I don’t think we finished a check on him once tonight.”

That focus from opposing coaches like Brown can be challenging night to night and handling the distractions in a draft year can be tough for a top prospect like Alex, according to Boyd.

Michael credited his son for his work ethic and overall handling of the transition.

“He’s a pretty good all around player and he works like everyone else on his team so that’s what’s exciting about it,” the 920-game NHL veteran said before the game.

As he approaches the draft, Nylander intends to show people he’s an offensive threat and a two-way player. Though his brother might disagree, according to Michael.

“They (Alex and William) like to chirp each other when they see each other play when there’s something they don't like.”

Now with 16 points in 11 games, good for third in OHL scoring, it looks like Alex may not need his brother’s advice.