Can Nils Höglander be a top-six winger for the Canucks in 2023/24?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
11 months ago
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Welcome back to our second and final episode of “Will this particular young player be able to crack the top-six of the Vancouver Canucks in 2023/24?”
When last we met, the subject at hand was Vasily Podkolzin, and the basic argument made was that, although Podkolzin might not look ready for prime-time quite yet, it would be in the best interests of both he and the franchise if he were given ample opportunity at the top of the lineup this season.
In conclusion, however, we had to recognize that such opportunities would have to be earned under head coach Rick Tocchet.
We return today to discuss a player drafted one round later than Podkolzin, but who today looks significantly more prepared to be a scorer at the NHL level, and that’s Nils Höglander.
Höglander, a full seven months older than Podkolzin despite being part of the same draft class, has always been discussed as someone with a lower prospect pedigree. But it was Höglander who arrived in Vancouver first, and it is he who’s skills seem to have translated to the big leagues quicker.
Nils Höglander: Top-Six?
Like Podkolzin, Höglander had a habit of playing a few levels above his head back home, and that made it hard to pin down just how offensively productive he might one day become. He was playing the in Swedish second-tier Allsvenskan as young as 16, though his point totals were limited. By the time of his draft year, Höglander had advanced to the SHL, where he cobbled together 14 points in 50 games.
Those might not sound like impressive numbers, but one has to consider that Höglander was a still-undrafted teenager playing in an adult professional league. Playing internationally amongst his own age group that same year, Höglander notched seven points in eight games.
Even at the SHL level, Höglander’s raw skill was apparent, as was that combination of a low center of gravity and dogged puck control that would soon become his trademark. It was enough for the Canucks to select him at 40th overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, a full 30 spots after selecting Podkolzin.
At the time, Höglander’s size and lack of stats worth writing home about kept the hype reasonable.
Höglander’s draft+1 season, however, would change things. He remained with Rögle of the SHL all year, improving his numbers ever so slightly to 16 points in 41 games — impressive for a teenager, but perhaps underwhelming to a fanbase that had just watched Elias Pettersson shatter records in the same league.
But the 2020 World Junior Championships, coming just a few months ahead of a global pandemic, proved to be Höglander’s coming out party. In helping Sweden to a bronze medal, Höglander scored five goals and six assists in seven games, trailing just Samuel Fagemo and Barrett Hayton in tournament scoring.
Höglander was robbed of a tournament all-star selection, but the word was on the street: this kid was good, and he was arriving soon.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, the SHL season was ultimately canceled without a champion being declared, and Höglander fell into limbo. The NHL season resumed with the infamous bubble playoffs, then found the outset of the 2020/21 season heavily delayed.
Technically on loan, Höglander returned to Rögle. Still just 20 years old, Höglander cranked out 14 points in 23 games and began to show signs of a genuine feistiness, even against much older and larger players.
In other words, he looked ready for the NHL, as soon as the NHL was ready for him.
The Canucks finally resumed play in January of 2021, and Höglander came over for a truncated Training Camp in which it soon became impossible to cut him. And so, his big league career began in full force.
Höglander’s rookie campaign remains his best. He hit a couple of cold streaks, including one right off the bat, but still managed 13 goals and 14 assists through 56 games. That was good enough for sixth place in rookie scoring for 2020/21, but it was Höglander’s unique playstyle that really turned heads, and started to convince Vancouverites that there may be a long-term future for him in the upper-half of the Canucks’ forward corps.
There’s perhaps no greater indicator of the kind of attention Höglander started to receive than the multiple incidents in which he became the sole focus of another team’s ire. Höglander was well on his way to making himself a household name…and then came the dreaded sophomore slump.
To be fair, it definitely wasn’t just Höglander struggling in 2021/22. The whole of the Canucks got off to one of the worst starts in franchise history under coach Travis Green. But then when Bruce Boudreau took over, everyone seemed to enjoy the Boudreau Bounce except Höglander, who never seemed to be able to earn his new coach’s trust.
The end result was ten goals and eight assists through 60 games, a firm step back from his rookie totals. If we’re being honest, Höglander probably should have been demoted to the AHL at some point that season, but he was not.
When his 2022/23 campaign got off to a similar start, however, it was finally time. Just three goals and six assists through 25 games was enough to have him shipped down to Abbotsford, though it still wasn’t an easy decision. A quirk in waiver eligibility meant that, although Höglander could be sent down this time, if he were to be recalled again, he’d have to stay in the NHL or face waivers. Essentially, the decision was made that Höglander would finish out the year in Abbotsford — and that wound up being the best thing for him.
It didn’t take long for Höglander to become, more or less, the best forward on the ice for the Minor Canucks on a near nightly basis. His numbers quickly outpaced fellow demotee Podkolzin, and the end result was 14 goals and 18 assists in 45 total AHL games. He followed that up by going point-per-game in six playoff games.
If Höglander were a 22-year-old draftee coming over from Sweden for his North American debut, these would be the sort of AHL numbers that would have Canucks fans very excited. That they came after he’d already completed two AHL seasons might complicate the picture, but maybe it shouldn’t.
There were some serious factors working against Höglander during his two-and-a-half seasons in Vancouver, particularly in the latter one-and-a-half as he bounced in and out of and all over the lineup. But as soon as he was handed a dedicated scoring role in Abbotsford, Höglander thrived, and that probably matters more than what he did playing 12 minutes a night under Boudreau.
One gets the feeling that coach Rick Tocchet will like Höglander a lot more than Boudreau did. Höglander plays “Tocchet hockey” to a degree, and now, thanks to his loss of waiver exemption, he’s virtually guaranteed to make the team. That means ample opportunity to impress Tocchet with his forechecking, puck possession, and undersized antagonism, and we think there’ll be a mutual fit there.
Honestly, the first time Höglander reverse-decks someone in the corner, Tocchet is probably going to have a new favourite.
All the underlying indicators are there to suggest Höglander can hack it at the NHL level. Aside from last season’s early-onset disaster, Höglander has always posted positive results in possession, shot control, expected goals, and chance control. He’s also one who, if anything, looks even better under the eye-test than he does under statistical analysis. There’s no stat for being able to hold onto the puck in the corner while two 6’6” defenders try to bash your brains in. There’s no column for spinoramas. There’s no metric for attempted lacrosse goals.
Nils Höglander is an intriguing and immediate option for the Canucks’ top-six based solely on his production at all levels of hockey, his penchant for dynamic growth, and his most recent scoring trends.
As soon as you include all those less tangible factors that make Höglander who he is, he becomes a very intriguing option.
And if we had to pick which of the two 22-year-olds appears most ready to take on a top-six role this upcoming season, we have to hand it to the one the Canucks drafted second.
The Canucks already have some dedicated snipers in Andrei Kuzmenko and Brock Boeser. They’ve got wheelers in Ilya Mikheyev and Anthony Beauvillier. They’ve got a puck possession expert in Conor Garland, and even a burgeoning power forward in Podkolzin.
But there’s only one winger in the system who blends all of the above skills together in one tidy package, and he’s the player you just read an entire article about. If Höglander isn’t the best option for the Canucks’ top-six this year, he’s certainly the most dynamic, and that counts a lot for a franchise in flux.
Höglander is going to make a stand in 2023/24, and he’s going to prove awfully tough to knock out of a scoring role as soon as he grabs hold of it.
Heck, with all that lower body strength, making a stand and not being able to be pushed out of it is kind of Höglander’s speciality.


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