Nils Höglander is playing like he deserves more minutes, but actually getting them might be a challenge for now
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
Last season, Nils Höglander’s pending waiver eligibility conspired to ensure that, once sent down to Abbotsford, he’d be staying there for good. Höglander went down to the AHL and played about as well as could be hoped for.
This year, that same waiver eligibility made it all but certain that Höglander would make the Vancouver Canucks’ roster out of Training Camp. But doing that, and actually earning a regular role under the watch of head coach Rick Tocchet are two entirely different goals.
Höglander did the former, and he’s still working on the latter.
But, boy, is he really working on it.
Höglander’s play thus far on the nascent 2023/24 campaign has been much like his time in Abbotsford last year: about as good as anyone could have reasonably hoped for.
Through seven games (and one healthy scratch) Höglander has two goals and two assists, good enough for a tie for seventh place in team scoring.
This, despite Höglander averaging a scant 10:06 in ice-time per game. That’s the lowest of any player to suit up this season save for Jack Studnicka. In other words, Höglander is already making the most of a limited opportunity, and Tocchet has taken notice.
Tocchet recently called out Höglander’s play as noticeably improved of late, and gave credit to some behind-the-scenes work with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Those who also rely heavily on the eye-test can attest to Höglander certainly looking good whenever he hits the ice. He’s been right back to that dogged puck pursuit and low-center-of-gravity puck protection that defined his rookie campaign two years ago. Höglander looks shifty, he looks dangerous, he looks difficult to take possession back from.
Höglander’s underlying stats don’t quite agree with the eye-test. His Corsi is south of 50% (47.37%), and his expected goals rate (36.63%), control of scoring chances (32.14%), and control of high-danger scoring chances (32.14%) all rank among the lowest on the team.
But caution is advised before taking any hard-and-fast conclusions from those numbers. For one, they’re only gleaned from a grand total of 67 minutes of even-strength ice-time, a small sample size if ever there was one. That sample size is further skewed by the fact that it has seen Höglander start almost double (17) the shifts in the defensive zone as he has in the offensive zone (10). That suggests that his fancy stats will even out eventually, and the fact that he’s been on the ice for five goals for and only two against suggests that Höglander is still making the most of whatever deployment he’s been given.
That’s neatly demonstrated by Höglander’s 3.61 points-per-60 at 5v5, the third-highest on the team after Brock Boeser and Ilya Mikheyev.
And then there’s the opportunities that Höglander creates for others: his 3.55 penalties drawn per 60 leads the team by a fairly wide margin.
All of which adds up to Höglander looking like he deserves, at the very least, more ice-time than the 10 minutes a game he is currently receiving.
But deserving ice-time can be something easier said than done, especially on a team with as much depth on the wings as the 2023/24 Vancouver Canucks.
As much as folks might want to see Höglander get a shot at the top-six, the way seems entirely barred for the time being. The Kuzmenko-Pettersson-Mikheyev line worked last season and is working again this season, having been reunited following Mikheyev’s return from injury. If there’s one line that is likely to stay together from start to finish this season, it’s that one.
Meanwhile, Phil di Giuseppe continues to defy expectations by being the perfect fit alongside JT Miller and Brock Boeser. One keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop and di Giuseppe to lose his spot on the ostensible second line, but it hasn’t happened yet and he doesn’t show any real signs of playing above his head.
Were Tocchet to eventually want to cycle di Giuseppe further down the lineup, Höglander does make sense as an option to replace him in the top-six. In this scenario, we might want to see him on the wing with Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko, bumping Mikheyev down to the Miller-Boeser line.
But, for the time being, di Giuseppe has earned and maintained his spot. That means that more minutes for Höglander are probably going to have to come out of the bottom-six.
One intriguing possibility for this is the impending return of Teddy Blueger to the lineup. Blueger, like Höglander, plays a game that is heavy on the forecheck. One can definitely imagine a unit of Blueger, Höglander, and either Sam Lafferty or Conor Garland being hell for opponents to contend with down-low. That’s also a unit that can definitely handle more than ten minutes a game, and could even fit well enough as the “third line” in a top-nine setup.
But there’s only so many minutes to go around. Elevating the minutes of this line would mean fewer minutes to pass around to the likes of Pius Suter, Anthony Beauvillier, and Dakota Joshua.
But maybe that’s fair. Each of those players has received significantly more on-ice opportunity than Höglander so far in 2023/24, and yet it is Höglander who continues to get the most out of his minutes.
It’s also worth noting here that Höglander is still just 22 years old, and presumably still on the upswing of his career and development as an NHL talent. That means that any additional ice-time given to him now can be seen as a long-term investment and continued preparation for him to play a larger role in the years to come, whereas the returns of other players are more singularly focused on the 2023/24 campaign.
So, to summarize, Höglander has both earned more minutes and needs more minutes, but actually getting them requires more than that. It requires those minutes being carved out of other players’ schedules and handed off. Or, it requires an injury or two, after which a lot of this discussion becomes moot — unless it’s Höglander himself who gets hurt.
Stay healthy, and the opportunities will come for Höglander. In the meantime, he’s making plenty due with what he has on hand.
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