Alex Nylander, Kirby Dach among Blackhawks using training camp to regain fitnessBen Popeon September 30, 2021 at 9:53 pm

Alex Nylander hasn’t played in a Blackhawks game since August 2020. | AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Nylander, after missing all of last season recovering from knee surgery, is just now “getting his conditioning back to the level it needs to be.”

Alex Nylander, despite his inconsistency, took an undeniable step forward in 2019-20. He became a full-time NHL player for the first time in his tumultuous young career, tallying a respectable 26 points in 65 games.

He expected to take another such step in 2021. But injury luck had other plans: he tore a meniscus in his knee, forcing him to undergo surgery in December and miss the entire season.

“I was really ready for my second year [with the Hawks],” Nylander said. “I got injured there like a week before training camp. It was tough to hear…[and] really frustrating. You learn a lot of things from the rehab process.”

The initial recovery time estimate was four-to-six months, but “because of the way it was torn,” the actual recovery exceeded that. Even this summer he was inhibited from working much on other aspects of his game.

His knee finally feels 100% healthy now, but the past year has left his fitness lagging behind the curve.

He has sometimes trailed behind during end-of-practice laps during training camp the past week. And in the preseason opener Wednesday, he struggled during his 14:33 of ice time, during which the Red Wings outshot the Hawks 6-1. His most notable moment was strangely breaking up a breakout attempt by his own teammate, Nicolas Beaudin.

“He’s just getting back up to speed again, getting his conditioning back to the level it needs to be,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “It’s just [about] getting back to that NHL speed [because] he hasn’t skated much.”

Much has been deservedly made of Jonathan Toews’ effort to get back to playing at an NHL level, but Toews isn’t the only Hawk working during camp to scrape off not just a summer’s worth but basically a year’s worth of rust.

Nylander, obviously, is another. So are Kirby Dach and Jake McCabe.

Dach missed 38 of the Hawks’ 56 games last season recovering from wrist surgery and never truly found his groove. McCabe missed the Sabres’ final 42 games recovering from his own knee surgery. Both of them returned to 100% health this summer, but must make up a lot of ground fitness-wise this fall.

“[This is] the benefit of a longer camp — it sure helps them,” Colliton said. “If all those guys were in a situation where we had seven days and then it’s time to play (like last season), it’d be a lot more difficult.”

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Kirby Dach played more than 21 minutes in Wednesday’s preseason game.

Dach’s early results are encouraging. On Wednesday he played 21:25, during which the Hawks outshot the Wings 12-3. His defensive instincts have been excellent since his rookie year, and his offensive aggressiveness should increase this year.

“Last year, stepping in during the playoff race, it’s a higher tempo, and you don’t really have that leeway where — if you do make a mistake — guys aren’t as sharp,” Dach said. “It’s good to have this buffer area to get out all the kinks and get ready to go.

“[I want to] prove to myself, teammates, management and the league, honestly, that I’m a good player. I can be a dominant player each and every night. I know I’ve got a lot of work to do in that aspect, but I’m excited for the challenge.”

McCabe has also felt “really good” throughout camp and should make his preseason debut Friday. He seems the farthest along of the four guys coming off major absences.

Nylander, meanwhile, seems the most unprepared of the four to play opening night. His sluggishness, combined with the Hawks’ surplus of quality forwards, may foreshadow an October in Rockford for the former eighth overall pick.

But the organization certainly hasn’t yet given up on him, and neither has he in himself.

“I’m really happy and excited getting back [out] there,” Nylander said. “Being in the dressing room with the guys, getting to do normal things, is also good. It’s been a long time.”

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