Signs of Life From Michael Nylander

When Michael Nylander signed a four-year contract at $4.875 million per before the 2007-08 regular season to join the Washington Capitals, he was seen as the most critical of the team's offseason acquisitions. At the time, both the fan base and the media were in agreement: the team needed a #1 center to work with Alex Ovechkin and it needed to lock one up fast.

Considering Nylander was coming off a pair of seasons in New York where he piled up 113 assists primarily working with Jaromir Jagr, there was little doubt that he would be a great fit on Washington's top line. Besides working as Ovechkin's set-up man, it was also assumed that Nylander would serve as a mentor to young center and fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom. All that remained was to get Nylander onto the ice with Ovechkin, and it was assumed that the points would start piling up for the veteran centerman.

Unfortunately, fate had other plans.

A nagging shoulder injury limited Nylander's effectiveness last season, and the anticipated partnership with Ovechkin never materialized. Finally sidelined for the balance of the season for shoulder surgery, Nylander could only sit and watch as the team stormed its way from the bottom of the standings to its first Southeast Division title in seven seasons and first playoff appearance since the 2002-03 season.

Fast forward to the start of the 2008-09 season, and it was easy to see that the youth movement that Caps management had been touting since the rebuilding program began during the 2003-04 season had arrived on schedule. The Caps were committed to playing an attacking style favored by head coach Bruce Boudreau, and as good as Nylander is with the puck, it was harder and harder to see how he fit in with such a young and fast lineup.

Saddled with what now looked like an unproductive contract, Nylander's name kept popping up in trade rumors, with possible deals with Vancouver and Chicago mentioned most prominently. And considering that the team has been hard up against the salary cap for most of the season, it's been hard not to see his contract as a lodestone that was keeping younger players like defenseman Karl Alzner stuck in the AHL at Hershey where they had nothing left to prove.

As far as Washington Caps coach Bruce Boudreau seemed to be concerned, neither the size of Nylander's contract nor his previous success was going to entitle him to an outsize role in Washington. And until recently, his production, coming it at about a point every two games, certainly could have been substituted with by any number of younger and cheaper players inside the organization.

But as was noted by our old friend J.P. a few days ago, it's clear that Nylander wouldn't be going anywhere for the duration, and it was up to Boudreau to carve out a role for the veteran that both suited his talent and wouldn't wound his pride. On Tuesday night in New Jersey, we got to see just how that might be working out.

Though Nylander didn't get on the scoreboard early, it was clear that Boudreau has decided to give him the chance he needed to prove he still belonged. Though he didn't pick up a point on the team's first goal, it was hard not to notice Nylander getting time on the power play unit and seeing him mixing it up a little bit in front of Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen. Later in the period, also on the power play, Nylander won an offensive zone draw that eventually resulted in a Brooks Laich goal.

Next, in the second period, he tapped in a rebound while most of the Devils seemed to be daydreaming to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead. Later, after the Devils had scored twice to pull within one, Nylander tallied a third period score on the power play to give Washington a 4-2 lead and essentially put the game away.

Now, is Nylander's place in the team's lineup assured? After seeing Boudreau operate up close for about a year now, I'd say yes, as long as Nylander keeps up with what he's been doing. And considering that neither of them is going anywhere for a while, that's better than good enough for now.

Signs of Life From Michael Nylander originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Wed, 04 Feb 2009 00:15:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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