Nils Åman drastically outstripped expectations in his first season with the Canucks, but needs to contribute more to keep his spot long-term
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
3 months ago
Right around this same time last year, GM Patrik Allvin announced a signing that largely went under the radar, but would wind up being far more important than anyone could have reasonably predicted.
The Vancouver Canucks signed Nils Åman to a two-year entry-level contract on June 7, 2022. Prior to that, the Colorado Avalanche had drafted Åman as an overager at 167th overall in the 2020 Entry Draft, but they chose not to sign him during the two seasons that followed, leaving him an unrestricted free agent at the age of 22.
At the time, Åman’s signing was overshadowed by the signing of a very similar player with a slightly-higher profile the week prior. Linus Karlsson was also a 22-year-old center playing in Sweden, and he’d just broken some of Elias Pettersson’s rookie records in the SHL. Though both were considered longshots to crack the Canucks roster right away in 2022/23, of the two, Karlsson was considered to have the inside track by a wide margin.
But that’s not what happened at all.
Instead, Karlsson wound up spending the entire season in Abbotsford, whereas Åman made the NHL roster out of training camp. He’d go on to play 68 games as a rookie, interrupted only by a 17-game stint down in Abbotsford.
So how did Åman beat the odds and become a Canuck so quickly?
Below, we’ll break down Åman’s first Year-in-Review, and also talk a little bit about what he needs to do to keep his big league job after unexpectedly earning it.
The Counting Stats
The key stat for Åman is still that 68 games, the seventh-most games played by any Canucks forward this past season. The rest aren’t much to write home about, but could be considered solid for a player that was expected to need a few years of development in the AHL.
How one feels about Åman’s offensive contributions this season probably depends on how one defines his role on the team.
For those portions of the season in which Pettersson, JT Miller, and Bo Horvat were all in the lineup and at the center position, Åman was the team’s ostensible fourth line center (and, on occasion, a fourth line winger.)
For a 4C, and a rookie 4C at that, a roughly 20-point pace over a full season is solid, if unspectacular. To wit, 16 points put Åman in a tie for the 26th-highest-scoring rookie.
But that wasn’t always the case. Miller played on the wing some, Horvat was eventually traded, and Åman ended up in the 3C role for a decent chunk of time.
And that’s a spot in which four goals and 16 points is just not going to cut it. If Åman has any hopes of being a third line fixture moving forward, he is going to have to find ways to produce more offence, plain and simple.
Of particular note is that faceoff percentage. Now, faceoffs are one of those “cholesterol stats,” in that the number itself doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s not too high or too low. Well, 38.2% is way too low.
In fact, of all the NHLers to take 300 or more faceoffs in the 2022/23 season, Åman’s percentage was the second-lowest, trailing only Jack Hughes and his 35.3%.
Even if Åman’s destiny remains on the fourth line, this is something he will need to improve on in a major way if he’s going to stick with the center position.
The Fancy Stats
Of course, being a bottom-six center is not just about offensive numbers. Unfortunately, Åman’s defensive and possessive results also show major room for improvement.
|Corsi||Shot Control||Expected Goals||Scoring Chance Control||High-Danger Scoring Chance Control|
When it came to Corsi and shot control, no Canuck who played more than 20 games posted worst results than Åman. Only Jack Studnicka had a worse ratio of Expected Goals.
Åman fared a little better in his control of actual scoring chances, but still not enough to escape the bottom-five of Vancouver regulars.
Pick a fancy stat, any fancy stat, and Åman is at or near the bottom of the column.
It should be noted here that one advanced statistic in which Åman actually led the Canucks was in defensive zone starts. He began a staggering 64.5% of his shifts in his own end, which has to have had a demonstrably negative effect on stats like Corsi. That being said, as unsheltered as Åman’s zone-starts were, his matchups were heavily sheltered, with the majority of his minutes coming against fellow bottom-sixers.
By no means was Åman anything approaching a shutdown, or even defensively-minded, center in 2022/23.
One additional thing that Åman had working in his favour, even if it didn’t show up on any statsheet, was a consistent linemate. He and Dakota Joshua wound up sharing more than 50% of their even-strength ice-time together, along with a rotating cast of third parts that included Conor Garland, Jack Studnicka, and the departed Curtis Lazar.
The Story Behind the Numbers
There’s really two ways one can look at this.
On the one hand, Åman came into the league unexpectedly early, and was immediately playing a regular role on a team that spent much of the season languishing in the NHL cellar. That’s a tough spot to succeed in and, indeed, we can track how Åman’s numbers gradually improved over the season as the team around him got back on track, as did his confidence and willingness to get physically involved.
On the other hand, had Åman signed with a better team, he would have never even sniffed NHL minutes in 2022/23.
In other words, it’s hard to say whether being a Vancouver Canuck helped or harmed Åman’s rookie season. It’s a matter of perspective, and neither view does much to change the reality of what Åman has to do moving forward.
Åman was really never supposed to have the spot on the roster he currently holds. He wasn’t in the immediate plans, and when he was signed, it was definitely as a longshot to be in the long-term plans.
Has that really changed?
As soon as next training camp, Åman is going to feel pressure from all around him to keep his job. Aatu Räty, the aforementioned Karlsson, and others will be pushing to leapfrog Åman from Abbotsford. If the Canucks do as they’ve indicated they might and sign a veteran 3C, Åman gets shoved back down to the third line.
A couple of moves in either direction, and Åman — still waivers-exempt — could easily wind up starting the 2023/24 campaign down in Abbotsford.
But big moves are also possible on Åman’s part. Last year, he made the leap form the SHL to the NHL into a surprisingly smooth transition, all things considered. He’s still plenty young enough to be considered in the “developing” stage of his career. It’s well within the realm of possibility that Åman has more to give both offensively and defensively, and that he’ll be able to fend off all contenders for his position in the lineup by simply becoming a better fit for that position himself.
This will be an important summer of training for Åman. The player we described above is not one who should be a long-term fixture at 3C. It might not even be a player who should be a long-term fixture at 4C.
But there’s potential there, and there’s certainly room for growth.
And if Åman can continue to grow as much as he seems to have since the Canucks signed him a year ago?
He might just wind up being a Vancouver Canuck for a good, long time.
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