Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Nils Höglander’s strong AHL season sets the stage for another top-nine audition in 2023–24
By Michael Liu8 months ago
Like Vasily Podkolzin, Nils Höglander suffered through a sophomore slump in 2022–23. Unfortunately for the Swede, however, it lasted into his third season.
The 2019 second-round pick didn’t start the season on the right foot. Despite flanking Bo Horvat and JT Miller for the majority of his ice time, Höglander only managed to put together 3 goals and 6 points through 25 games. He was also healthy scratched five times prior to the month of November. Not the production or development you’d want for him.
Looking at the advanced stats, Höglander was dragging down Miller and Horvat whenever he was riding alongside them. Their CF% went up about 3 points when playing away from Höglander, and their xGF% shot up by 10 points.
It wasn’t just the points and stats, though: Höglander just didn’t look right. Yes, there was the groin injury that brought his 2021–22 season to an end, but it was the winger’s hands and confidence that looked more damaged in the early parts of 2022–23. Nearly every time he had the puck, Höglander would seem to either bobble it or puck handle himself into the boards. He made low-percentage plays frequently, while high-percentage plays seemed to always end up going the wrong way for the Swede.
All of this came from a player who was previously known for his smarts and sick hands. It was just hard to see it happen, Höglander becoming a shell of himself and a mere curiosity rather than a true solution in the top-9. His development was trending the wrong way and looked to be collateral of a lost season.
That is, until he was sent down to the American Hockey League.
Höglander could’ve been discouraged and demoralized by this. Any other player would’ve been rattled from the sharp decline after a promising rookie season. Instead of pouting, however, Höglander got right back to work. His time with Abbotsford showed that he still has so much more to contribute at the NHL level.
There were things he had to get used to, of course, but once Höglander started rolling, it just didn’t seem to stop. 32 points in 45 games with the Abbotsford Canucks might not seem otherworldly, but each night Höglander looked a step ahead of the game.
Höglander rediscovered the confidence, creativity, and swagger about his game, playing with an edge and snarl that wasn’t present before. Of course, sometimes that extra bite led to some undisciplined play, but even that sometimes drew plaudits from Abby head coach Jeremy Colliton.
“I’d rather have a player like that and pull the reins, than trying to have to dial him up,” Colliton said. “You can win with guys like that.”
After the rest of the AHL regular season, Höglander was also a big part of the Abbotsford Canucks’ playoff run. In 6 games played, he racked up three goals and three assists, making himself a threat on the scoresheet as well as a chippy nuisance to play against. There was that skill that he was known for, as well as the rough edges that got under the skin of his opponents.
It’s all of this in the AHL that lends well for Höglander to springboard himself back into the NHL lineup for next season. His development looks to be back on track, getting back to playing a game that makes him more successful and should translate up to the big leagues. Rediscovering confidence was key in helping the Swede get himself back together, with the time in Abbotsford allowing him to be trusted with an elevated role and thrive in it.
Thanks to the exit of Vitali Kravtsov and perhaps the beneficiary of the Canucks trying to move out a winger, there’s no better position for Höglander to be in right now after spending the year in Abbotsford. It might not be the solid NHL guarantee that some fans might want, but there’s a spot ready to be won out in training camp. Höglander needs to come in ready to prove a point, to show that his game is one that Rick Tocchet would like to have consistently in his lineup.
He’ll have his size working against him, but Höglander’s bite and skill should help him swing into Tocchet’s good books. If anything, the Swede would likely start on the third line, with the hopes that he shows enough improvement to move up in the lineup as the season wears on.
Hopefully, that confidence will remain through the 2023–24 season. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more of this in the NHL from him sooner rather than later:
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