For many NHLers, a small push in the right direction is all it takes to break a slump. For Nils Höglander, it took a big assignment and the right kind of trust from his head coach.
Höglander’s struggles offensively since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Canucks bench have been well documented. But in the third period against the Islanders, the Swedish sophomore finally lifted the piano off his back, scoring his first goal in 21 games on a nifty feed from Conor Garland.
While Garland’s playmaking skills created the scoring space, it was Höglander’s hard work knocking the puck off Kyle Palmieri’s stick that kept the play alive.
“He let out a big yell there,” Garland told Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy after the game. “He’s a young kid, works hard, obviously everybody went through slumps at the start of their career so it’s nice to see him score.”
Advertisement
Ad
Höglander’s game-tying goal in the third was some much-needed relief for a young player who’s looked lost for large stretches of this year, particularly since the December coaching change. In fact, based on his coach’s own comments between Tuesday’s 7-2 loss to the Devils and last night’s victory, it seemed possible that Höglander wouldn’t even be a scoring option against the Isles.
After a game against New Jersey where Höglander missed a pivotal early scoring chance and got taken off Elias Pettersson’s line, Boudreau couldn’t provide any answers for his winger’s scoring woes. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for him to make an impact, but I moved guys around because it wasn’t working,” Boudreau said Tuesday night.
At Wednesday’s practice in Belmont, Boudreau had recent Abbotsford call up Phil Di Giuseppe splitting reps alongside Höglander’s linemates Pettersson and Garland, and was noncommittal on which winger would play.
Advertisement
Ad
The coach eventually chose to stick with Höglander, and the rest is history.
If there’s one element of Boudreau’s coaching style that’s been a real headscratcher at time, it’s his tough-love approach with younger players. Boudreau has taken similar directions with both Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin, scratching them in back-to-back games in late January. At the time, Boudreau was pretty vocal about his frustrations with Höglander, particularly on defence.
While older veterans are usually motivated through a wake-up healthy scratch or a midgame benching, a lot of younger players like Höglander prefer responding to adversity head-on, with last season being a perfect example. Despite playing on a last place team in 2021, Höglander’s 27 points in 56 games provided one of the few good stories of the year as he rose to the occasion on a line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
Advertisement
Ad
Höglander thrives on big assignments, and being given high-pressure situations to battle through in the midst of a scoring drought makes for a great motivator. Perhaps Boudreau figured that out, because Höglander, Pettersson, and Garland were an absolute unit in possession metrics against the Islanders.
His individual events tell a similar story for his play away from the puck, highlighted by three hits and a shot block all at even strength.
That strong play, coupled with his goal that helped push the Canucks to victory, felt like a potential turning point to Höglander’s coach.
“I just think that’s going to do wonders for him, I hope, getting the monkey off your back type of scenario,” Boudreau said after. “He’s just grabbing that stick so tight, and to get a great feed by Garland. And to put it in, I thought really lightened his mind if that makes any sense.”
Advertisement
Ad
Höglander still has an uphill battle to climb before he gets the same level of confidence from Boudreau that he’d earned under Travis Green. Despite his third period goal, Höglander played just two seconds of ice time in the final 10 minutes as the Canucks protected a lead.
It’s going to take some more time for Höglander’s defensive skills to get up to Boudreau’s standards, which could be helped through more defensive zone starts and penalty-killing shifts. But if the puck luck is finally bouncing his way again, it’s going to be hard for Bruce Boudreau to keep Nils Höglander off the ice.