Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Are we talking enough about Nils Åman, the Canucks’ fourth line centre who came out of nowhere?
21 days ago
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the centre depth of the Vancouver Canucks, especially after they just added their third 1C to the roster in Elias Lindholm.
Folks have opined about the Canucks’ ability to now roll a three-man centre-rotation of Lindholm, Elias Pettersson, and JT Miller.
They’ve also pointed out the possibility of loading all three into the top-six, which is how the team appears set to begin the Lindholm Era, so as to keep Teddy Blueger’s unit together on the third line.
But in all that chatter, there’s one name that’s been largely absent from the discussion, and that’s Nils Åman.
Flying under the radar seems to be Åman’s specialty, but we’re not letting him get away with that for much longer. The 23-year-old is very quietly putting together an excellent sophomore season as the Canucks’ 4C, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted in this particular organization.
Åman started out the 2023/24 campaign with a touch of disappointment. After having defied expectations by stepping out of the SHL and into 68 games as an NHL rookie in his first season on North American ice, Åman was cut from the Canucks following Training Camp 2023.
With new faces like Blueger, Pius Suter, and Sam Lafferty in the mix, this wasn’t entirely unexpected. That Åman was specifically beat out for his spot by a surging Jack Studnicka could be taken as a bit of a surprise, but then many suspected that Åman was due for a developmental season in Abbotsford, anyway.
But that would not be the case.
Studnicka lasted just five relatively uneventful games with the Canucks before being sent down himself and subsequently traded to San Jose. Anthony Beauvillier departed via trade, too, and on November 24, 2023, Åman was both recalled to Vancouver and signed to a two-year contract extension, carrying through the 2025/26 season.
This recall was more significant than the average player-shuffle, too. A few nights later, Åman played in Game #71 of his career, crossing the threshold for waiver-exemption and ensuring, more or less, that he’d be on the NHL roster for the remainder of the year.
In the past, we might have accepted this as an accidental misfire. But not so with this current managerial unit. They clearly and consciously chose to have Åman be a permanent fixture on the Canucks post-November.
And he hasn’t disappointed.
Åman’s contributions, in keeping with his role on the team, have been limited. He’s playing just 10:46 a night, almost two full minutes fewer than he played as a rookie. And that ice-time will probably go down some now that Lindholm is around. But it’s what Åman has done with those limited minutes that is worth noting here.
Åman has managed two goals and four assists for six points across 26 games, more or less a pace of 20 points across a full 82-game season. He’s thus far broken exactly even at even-strength.
His Corsi of 47.29% doesn’t stand out, and is pretty much at the Canucks’ team average. But the rest of the fancy stats suggest that Åman and his fourth line are doing an exceptional job of controlling the play when they’re out there.
Åman is holding down a 54.92% expected goal rate while on the ice, fourth-best on the team behind the trio of Blueger, Conor Garland, and Dakota Joshua. He’s got a 56.82% control of higher-danger chances, again fourth on the team behind the whole third line.
What more could one ask for from the fifth-or-sixth-best centre on the roster than doing a little better than breaking even?
Don’t go thinking that this is all down to sheltered deployment, either. Åman faces slightly less-than-average competition, which is actually better than average for a 4C.
And while Åman does start the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone, that’s as much due to his offensively-gifted linemates and the one notable flaw in his game: faceoffs.
(Though on that front, Åman has seen major improvement, moving to a 47.6% win-rate in 2023/24 after going 38.2% as a rookie.)
Speaking of those linemates, Åman has been having a demonstrably positive effect on Lafferty and Nils Höglander ever since coming together as a somewhat-consistent fourth line. Both Höglander and Lafferty see 6-12% jumps in their possession and control stats while out there with Åman, as compared to when they’ve been without him.
Heck, we almost got this far without mentioning the shorthanded contributions! Åman is third amongst Canucks forwards in average PK time, behind just Blueger and Joshua. Any PK time out of a 4C is a win, and having that 4C be a genuine leader on the penalty kill is simply spectacular.
And why is all this success at 4C, limited by nature though it is, so important to the Canucks?
Because 4C has been a particularly troubled spot for this franchise for quite some time.
How far do we need to go back to prove it? Remember Tommi Santala, the “best fourth line centre in the world?”
The list of players that the Canucks have brought in to try to fill the 4C role is as lengthy as it is ridiculous. Joseph Cramarossa. Nic Petan. Justin Dowling. Curtis Lazar. Tyler Graovac. Zac Dalpe. Matthew Highmore. Sheldon Dries. And so on.
None have stuck. At various points, the Canucks even went to great extremes to land a quality 4C, like the time they paid Jay Beagle $12 million as a UFA to come to Vancouver and skate 13 lacklustre minutes a night.
It’s not necessarily that 4Cs are hard to come by. The Canucks had a great one in Nic Dowd, who they let go to make room for Beagle. Dowd went to Beagle’s old team, the Capitals, for much cheaper, and he’s still there doing it six seasons later.
It’s just that a good 4C has been so hard to come by for the Vancouver Canucks for so long.
And then Nils Åman just falls into their lap, quite literally out of nowhere.
Åman was a sixth round pick at 167th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, a status that already made him a longshot for NHL minutes. The odds were stacked up even more against him when the Colorado Avalanche decided to let his rights lapse just two seasons after drafting him.
The Canucks swooped in and offered Åman a contract. But even their most optimistic amateur scouts surely couldn’t have predicted that Åman would step right up from SHL castoff to regular NHLer in a matter of months, and they certainly couldn’t have predicted that he’d have sealed up a full-time, dedicated centre role on one of the NHL’s top teams within less than two calendar years.
So, after more than a decade of searching, the Canucks have finally landed their 4C solution.
And what did it cost them?
Some quality scouting and a couple of near-minimum contracts.
That’s worth talking about.
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