Photo Credit: Andrea Cardin / IIHF

How Nils Höglander dominates possession and why this will translate to the NHL

Vancouver Canucks prospect Nils Höglander will participate in training camp this season and his SHL career has prepared him well for it.

As it stands right now, Höglander is currently 14th (min 200 5-on-5 mins) in the SHL when it comes to Corsi for percentage. To simplify the stat, when he is on the ice, his team is controlling 58.22% of attempted shots. There’s a lot to like about seeing this stat because it shows that for the majority of the time, Höglander and his linemates possess the puck in the offensive zone.

However, the reason for the high possession numbers doesn’t come from Höglander’s defensive skill. The reason why Höglander is near the top of the SHL in CF% is because of his ability to extend plays in the offensive zone.

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His elite puck skills shine in the offensive zone

We have all heard about his stickhandling skill and seen his creativity. The positive, lesser talked about aspect of his game is an ability to extend offensive zone time and high hockey IQ which he uses to find openings in defences at 5-on-5.

This shift is from a game on December 8th where he extends offensive zone time with good passes, open ice awareness and a high energy level on the forecheck.

His elite talent in the offensive zone is the reason why many scouts who follow him closely say that he needs to be in a top-six role in order to have success.

Here’s another quick GIF of him making an excellent pass in the offensive zone after gaining possession of the puck.

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More time in the offensive zone means more time for Höglander to use his deadly skillset. This is a big difference in Höglander’s game compared to fellow Canucks’ top prospect Vasili Podkolzin.

Höglander has such high possession numbers because of what he is able to do in the attacking third of the ice. Podkolzin has high possession numbers because of what he does in the first two thirds of the ice. Being an NHL calibre player in the first two-thirds of the ice will be the toughest transition for Höglander.

That being said, he has certainly improved on his defensive game throughout his three seasons and 100+ SHL games.

Attempted shot attempts against at 5-on-5 have steadily dropped throughout his 18, 19 and 20 year old seasons in the SHL.

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One of the strengths that we have seen this year compared to his last two is the effort level he is bringing on the forecheck. Every game there are forechecks that suggest that he has the necessary tools to be an elite puck retriever at the NHL level one day.

One of the more high-end skills in his defensive game is his work along the boards. He is very good at controlling his blade in board battles and though 95% of the time he is outsized in a board battle, he is coming out with possession more times than he isn’t.

Even with the highest expected goals per 60 minutes of his SHL team, the numbers haven’t been eye-catching for Höglander this season, who currently sits at four goals and eight assists through 19 games. He is coming off a game where he had one goal and one assist and it felt like one of the only games of the season where Höglander has gotten some bounces to go his way.

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Last season he had a 16.1% shooting percentage over 41 games. This year, that has dropped down to 13.8% in 19 games. The goals and assists aren’t coming at an astonishing rate, but he is putting together a half-decent season so far in the SHL.

His fit with the Canucks is still unknown

There are openings in the Canucks’ top six, specifically on the right side. Right wing has been Höglander’s primary position this season but he has been a left winger in the past and in small sample sizes this year as well.

I don’t know if he is ready to play with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller on the first line right now. The matchups in which this line will summon would be a steep jump in competition to what he has been used to this season in the SHL. That being said, the level of support that he would receive playing with Pettersson and Miller would be lightyears ahead of what he receives from his linemates on Rögle BK’s third line.

The Canucks should explore what this line can look like. Not only has Höglander been improving enough to get an NHL shot right now, but he will also already be 20+ games into an SHL season when the Canucks begin their training camp. He could provide a significant boost to the team’s top six if he is able to mesh with Pettersson and Miller.

There’s also room on the Bo Horvat line if the Canucks elect to go with returning Brock Boeser to the first line to begin the season. Depending on how the Horvat line is used, Höglander could be a bad fit on this line. If Horvat and Tanner Pearson are chained with playing against the other team’s best offensive line like we have seen in the past, this spot could be a colossal failure for Höglander as he needs to be in a position where the puck spends a majority of the time in the offensive zone or where he plays against lower parts of opponents’ lineups.

Then there’s the third line. If the third line is centred by Adam Gaudette and is put into more offensive zone situations, it could be a good fit for Höglander. Potentially using Antoine Roussel, Zack MacEwen or Tyler Motte as the other winger could help support the line in the defensive zone.

On top of all of this, Höglander’s skill on the powerplay should immediately give a boost to the Canucks’ second unit. He is a great playmaker and attacks the net with good decision making.

Some may look at the stats and tell you that Höglander’s streaky scoring should be a concern and that he needs to be more consistent. From my viewing of Höglander, I don’t really see a lack of consistency that should worry Canucks fans. The lack of consistency that I see from him is his ability to be the best player on the ice. For at least a handful of games this season, Höglander has been Rögle BK’s best player on the ice. I’ll take that as there have only been four games this season where he has had negative possession numbers.

We are waiting to hear when Höglander will be making his way over to Vancouver to begin his 14-day quarantine and the news should be coming potentially as soon as this weekend. We will keep you posted with all things Cancuks as more news trickles out about training camp and the return to play plan.