Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Why does Nils Höglander score more in the bottom-six than he does in the top-six?
1 month ago
Nils Höglander scored two goals in the Vancouver Canucks’ 6-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Monday night.
Actually, let us amend that a little bit.
Höglander scored one regular goal on Monday night…
…and then followed it up with a highlight-reel goal-of-the-year candidate.
In other words, there was an abundance of skill on display against the Rangers from the just-turned-23-year-old on Monday night.
A “top-six” amount of skill?
Well, that remains up for debate.
There’s little doubt remaining that Höglander is a talented player. Ultra-talented, some might say. But Höglander has struggled to find opportunities in the Canucks’ top-six, and when he has received those opportunities, he hasn’t exactly made the most of them.
In fact, the numbers here tell an interesting story, and it’s a story of a player who seems to not just play better in the bottom-six, but to also produce more there.
Höglander’s most frequent even-strength linemates in 2023/24 have been JT Miller and Brock Boeser, with him having shared approximately 25% of his ice-time with the two point-per-game scorers thus far.
And it’s not as if that line hasn’t found at least some measure of success.
Höglander has four of his 17 even-strength points alongside Miller and Boeser, which is almost a quarter of his production. The line itself has been on for eight goals for and seven against, which is a positive record.
It’s not as if Höglander has played poorly alongside Miller and Boeser, necessarily.
It’s just that he’s played so much better elsewhere in the lineup.
Take a look at this chart:
|With Miller and Boeser
|Without Miller and Boeser
Powered by NaturalStatTrick.com, representing even-strength ice-time
A couple of items stand out right away.
The sample size of “Höglander without Miller and Boeser” is more than twice the size of the sample of “Höglander with Miller and Boeser,” but both are large enough to draw at least some preliminary conclusions from.
Together, Höglander, Miller, and Boeser are a collective +1 at even-strength. With all of his other linemate, Höglander is a cumulative +9. To wit, he’s allowed fewer goals against in 279 minutes without Miller and Boeser than he has in 110 minutes with, and that can’t help but to seem significant.
Höglander’s expected goals rate and his control of high-danger chances are also way higher without Miller and Boeser, and his possession stats are relatively even.
Don’t go thinking that this is all down to deployment, either. With Miller and Boeser, Höglander starts 43.68% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Without them, he starts 44.04% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
It is almost certainly true that Höglander faces a stiffer quality of competition when lined up with Miller and Boeser. But quality of teammates is an equally important factor, and being out there with two PPG players should wipe out any matchup discrepancy.
Don’t go thinking, either, that this is all a statistical anomaly generated by focusing on Miller and Boeser specifically as linemates. It’s true that Höglander has also skated some shifts with Elias Pettersson, but those shifts haven’t really made much of a difference in his statline. Höglander has just two of his even-strength points alongside Pettersson. Compare that with Höglander’s nine points alongside Sam Lafferty, or his five alongside the departed Anthony Beauvillier.
For whatever reason, Höglander just seems to be making far more of his opportunities in the bottom-six than he has any of his opportunities in the top-six.
Which, of course, raises the question of “why?”
As everyone plainly saw on Monday, and on countless other occasions since Höglander joined the Canucks, it’s not a question of skill. If one were to rank the current team based solely on offensive talent, one has to imagine that Höglander would rank quite high. He’s the guy that does stuff like this on a regular basis:
Clearly, he’s got talent.
Is it consistency then? Höglander has had his ups and downs as a player, and gone through plenty of cold stretches throughout his career. But that hasn’t really been the case this year. Aside from the six-game pointless drought Höglander snapped on Monday, he’s been putting up points with decent regularity all season long, despite ice-time that is absolutely inconsistent.
Is it fit?
That’s always a possibility. The wing on Miller and Boeser’s line is such a particular spot that Phil di Giuseppe of all people came out of Training Camp as the best fit there. It could be that Höglander just doesn’t mesh well with those two. But then they have produced just fine together, and it’s not like Höglander has played any better with Pettersson.
The more one looks at this phenomenon, the more it looks to be a classic Canucks “it is what it is” situation.
Maybe Höglander is just better at contributing from the bottom-six than he is from the top-six.
It’s not as strange as it sounds. Höglander is an undersized player that is at his most effective when he eludes the notice of the opposing team. He’s best described as opportunistic. Perhaps getting out there in limited minutes and looking to make the most of those minutes is simply a better fit for how Höglander views the game than a deployment of dedicated offensive opportunities.
It’s also worth noting that Höglander plays a game that is obviously quite physically taxing on him. How many times a game does he take the puck into the corner and maintain possession, all the while taking abuse from players twice his size?
Maybe sharing the ice with other grinders, who don’t mind mucking it up in the corners and taking their share of the brunt, is exactly the kind of support Höglander needs.
Maybe his possession-heavy style is a better fit for a line that is as interested in killing time on the clock as it is putting the puck in the net.
Maybe he and Lafferty just click.
Over the years, the Canucks have had other players of this ilk. Those who would appear to have all the skill required to be a top-six forward, and yet still seem to be better fits in the bottom-six over the long-term. Current radio analyst Jannik Hansen comes to mind first, but there have been others.
Will Höglander prove the same? It’s probably too early to put such stringent definitions on him as a player quite yet.
But, at the very least, that’s what it looks like so far, and it’ll be something to keep an eye on as the Canucks build their roster into the future.
It’s also not, to be perfectly clear, a negative thing. As the Canucks move closer to contention, they’re no doubt happy to receive contributions from anywhere in the lineup they can get them, including the bottom-six.
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