The perfect top-six winger is one who can score goals, drive play, extend offensive zone possession, and force turnovers through defensive pressure.
This season, 20-year-old rookie Nils Höglander has done all those things.
He came to North America after 23 SHL games at the end of 2020 and hasn’t missed a beat all year. He has now played in 74 professional games since September. Not only has he played in 74 games, but the kid has gone through two separate COVID-19 outbreaks that kept each team off the ice for two weeks.
Did I mention that he turned 20 in the midst of transitioning from the SHL to the NHL?
Because he did that too.
His motivation comes from an absolute obsession with the game of hockey and that’s what has gotten him through this long and strange season.
“I have fun every day. It’s a lot of hockey to play so I just have fun out there,” said Höglander. “It’s a lot of games, it’s hard, but it’s hockey. I feel I did a good job this season. I work hard every day and try to learn every day. It’s a long season with a lot of games but it feels good.”
Night in and night out, he has brought a consistent level of energy to the ice. The combination of his effort level, hand-eye coordination and pure skill around the puck make him a coach’s dream.
His work in the first two-thirds of the ice creates offensive chances for him so that he can showcase his elite puck-handling skills to go with his improving shot.
There was clearly a lot to like about the way he played in the SHL. He was one of the top-25 players in the league when it came to possession numbers and on a very good Rögle BK team, he was the best player on the ice in more than a handful of games this season. The only thing was, he was playing third-line minutes so it made it tough to believe that he was going to jump right into the Canucks’ top-six and be as good as he has been this season.
There definitely were doubters and I don’t knock them for that. This type of success has been a pleasant surprise to many.
Head coach Travis Green has quietly sung the praises of Höglander all season. There has been a lot of video work done with Höglander throughout the season about how to be better in the defensive zone, but Green has overall been impressed with the rookie.
“He’s had a good season, [he’s a] good young player, he’s got a bright future in the NHL and with our organization,” said Green. “There have been some learning curves for sure, as we all expected from the physical part of playing a lot of games. We knew that there would be some ups and downs. I give him credit, he gets a lot of video shown to him and gets a lot thrown at him. It’s a different game for him over here and we’ve tried to let him be offensive and play with his instincts. The other end of the rink is where he’s been working on and you can see that it’s starting to come through.”
Though he won’t be mentioned much in the Calder Trophy conversation simply due to the lack of total points, Höglander has been one of the best facilitators of five-on-five offence in the league. He is currently 62nd in the NHL for five-on-five points per 60 minutes. His production at even strength is vital for the Canucks moving forward. Like I mentioned earlier, he won’t get much buzz for the Calder, but his rookie season stacks up nicely when put up against the Canucks’ last three Calder finalists.
The even-strength offence comes from his ability to quickly shift from the first two-thirds of the ice into an attacking rush for his team. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and that — paired up with his intensely quick reaction time — creates quick turnovers that result in odd-man rushes going the other way.
Green has liked that part of his game and believes that offence develops from good play in the defensive zone. Höglander’s effort level allows him to play his game but Green believes that there is still work to do in the defensive zone to make him an even better top-six player, and that’s an exciting thing.
“It’s been a good season for Nils, we’re lucky to have him,” said Green. “He’s a great young player and is going to continue to improve from year to year and I’m excited to see where he’s going to be in two to three years because I find that he still has a lot to learn in the defensive side of the game. Chris Higgins has done a ton of work with him, he goes through every game and shows him a lot of little details like on the wall, how to come back and just D-zone coverage. We’ve given Hogs some rope to learn, and he’s made mistakes defensively. He’s created a lot offensively, with offensive-minded players that can create, you have to give them some rope defensively, especially when they’re young. For me, I probably did give more rope because of the competitive nature that he has. That always kind of buys you some more work with coaches. He goes to hard areas on the ice, and he’s not a big guy, but he’s not afraid, he’s very brave.”
It’s that competitiveness that will keep him in a top-six role. Coaches love to see skilled guys work their tails off and Höglander is a perfect example of that.
“If you have skill but aren’t competitive, it’s not worth having the skill,” said Green. “It’s too hard to win in the NHL. I think the best players in the league are ultra-competitive and the best players don’t win just because they’re skilled, they win because they’re ultra-competitive.”
It’s been a great year for Höglander and he still has so much room to grow. He is developing more chemistry with the other top-six players and gives the Canucks a variety of options in their top-six with his ability to comfortably play both sides of the ice. He has burst onto the scene with the Canucks and projects to be a big piece of this team moving forward.
Höglander is the type of player that you want playing on your team when playoff hockey rolls around.
We will have to wait to see that action but it’s going to be a beautiful sight with another year or two of development.
Let’s remember that he is only 20-years-old.
There’s tons of time to grow his game.