If one were to take a look at the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021/22 statblock thus far, they’d be hard-pressed to identify the forward who has been most noticeable on the ice.
The one who often gets tagged as the night’s best performer.
The one who makes the fans say “ööö” and “aah” on a regular basis.
We’re talking, of course, about Nils Höglander, who — despite what certainly looks like a strong start to the season, as far as the eye-test is concerned — has only managed three points through ten games.
To be entirely fair, those three points still put Höglander in a tie for seventh place in team scoring. And the production is going to catch up with the on-ice product sooner or later. Not only does he look good out there, Höglander’s advanced stats also support the notion of an inevitable breakout. Pick a stat, and Höglander is almost certainly in the top-three among Vancouver forwards or higher; Corsi, shot control, expected goals, actual on-ice goals, high-danger chances. You name it, and Höglander is probably dominating it.
As a rookie last year, Höglander scored on 11% of his shots. This year, he’s taken 21 shots and hasn’t scored on a single one of them, even though he’s actually getting more of his shots on net compared to last season.
Call it bad luck, call it being snakebitten, call it a statistical anomaly. The point is, Höglander’s offensive production is eventually going to improve.
And that’s not really what we’re here to talk about today, anyway.
We’re here to talk about Nils Höglander; an unheralded defensive stud and maybe even a stealth future Selke candidate.
Oh yeah, he’s that good.
How good? Check this stat out.
Almost a month into the 2021/22 season (and as of this writing), 232 NHL forwards have played 100 or more even-strength minutes, with Höglander being one of them at 131:06.
Of those 232, only nine of them have been on the ice for one goal against or fewer: Kevin Rooney, Garnet Hathaway, Carl Hagelin, Blake Coleman, Jesper Fast, Jordan Kyrou, Elias Lindholm, Joel Farabee, and — you guessed it — Nils Höglander.
From that list, only Lindholm and Höglander have played more than 115 minutes. (Rooney, for the record, is the only one from the list to surrender zero goals against thus far.)
This early in the season and on that small of a sample size, it might not mean all that much. But it’s only further confirmation of what is quickly becoming obvious to even a casual viewer of the Canucks, and that’s Höglander’s status as a premium two-way player. As is hockey media tradition, he probably won’t get much credit for the defence until the offence really kicks into gear, but what are you going to do?
Credit or not, head coach Travis Green is starting to notice. Höglander’s quality of competition in 2021/22 looks a little weird on account of the limited data, but he’s already spending more time against the opposing top-six than he did as a rookie.
He may not fit the profile of a typical top defensive forward, but that’s because there’s nothing really typical about Höglander in the first place. He’s a unique talent, and part of that talent is making it harder for opponents to score goals while he’s on the ice.
He may not be laying down to block shots or hammering people into the boards, but there’s more than one way to skin a defence cat.
If Höglander is on the ice, where’s the puck? More often than not, it’s on his stick, and he doesn’t give it up easily. What can’t opponents do when the puck is on Höglander’s stick? Score goals.
If you’ll forgive us for the lack of a punchline, let’s say Höglander, an opponent, and the puck head into the corner. Who’s coming out together? More often than not, it’s Höglander with the puck. Again, the opponent simply cannot score when the puck is on Höglander’s stick.
He’s using his speed to hustle on the backcheck. He’s using his active stick to disrupt plays — tied for second on the team in takeaways — and intercept passes.
He’s using that preposterously low center of gravity to drop his shoulder into opposing players and shunt them off the puck, time and time again.
He’s only been allowed on the penalty kill for a single minute, but it was a darn good minute — and, of course, he did not get scored on.
Because of that one measly goal against, we can’t call Höglander’s defensive performance in 2021/22 thus far flawless, but most other superlatives can apply. As the season continues, look for Höglander to be handed more and more responsibility, tougher and tougher matchups, more time on the ice defending late leads, and maybe even some dedicated PK time.
And as his career progresses, look for Höglander to gain more and more recognition as a premier two-way NHL forward.
Are we dreaming when we say we can imagine a Selke in Höglander’s future? Maybe. But we might not be the only ones for long.