By: Brayden Fengler / May 21, 2021
By this point, you don’t need to be told that this Vancouver Canucks season was challenging for the players and the organization. You don’t need to be regaled on the many pitfalls that you watched management walk into over the course of the last few months. We’re heading into the sunny summer months now, so who needs those kinds of vibes crushing their spirits?
It can seem like there are 1 million articles floating out there from this season, recounting the tragic and unfortunate events that have befallen the Canucks. Although it would certainly be easy for us here at StadiumChinatown.ca to add another article to that pile, it wouldn’t do anyone’s soul any good. So in that spirit, it may be a better use of your time and energy to read something more positive.
There is truly only one individual that has been a beacon of joy for this team throughout the whole season. No other Canuck, on the ice or in management, has brought a smile and a feeling of joy to this fan base at every moment of this year like this rookie has.
There is just this one Canucks’ player, who above all else has captured the spirit of what this market likes to see in the game of hockey, and that man is Nils Höglander.
Just a Hög Lot of Fun
Before the puck even dropped this season, Höglander breathed fresh air into this fan base the moment that he stepped on the ice for training camp. With the market still sore from the events of free agency and the amount of talent that this team had let walk in the off-season, it was nice to have Höglander there to inject some optimism into the conversations of early January.
At the time there was even still hope that the Canucks may be a strong contender in the North (how young and naïve we were back then). So when seeing Höglander’s impact during training camp, there was a thought that his level of talent may help ease the wound left by players who recently walked away from the team.
Due to injuries and the NHL COVID protocol, Höglander was quickly thrust into the top lines of this Canucks team, playing most of his minutes alongside either Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, or Tanner Pearson. This is likely not the route the Canucks would’ve liked to take Höglander’s development if they had more of a choice, as he was often forced to play harsh matchup minutes against teams best lines.
Generally, it’s better to ease new players, even future stars, slowly into top spots in the lineup. This way players can first get a feel for the pace of the game at the NHL level and aren’t immediately steamrolled by the raw talent and experience of the opponent’s top players. Yet, although it was trial by fire for Höglander this year, he more than excelled in his top-line roles.
This season Höglander was always hard on the puck and he rarely seemed to lose it. His control of the puck, mixed with his lethally accurate long-distance passes made Höglander not only exciting to watch but gave viewers and teammates a sense of security and reliability when he had the puck on his stick. A sense that is not often so quickly felt with rookies.
Höglander finishes the season in the top 5 in points production for his team. He ended the season with 27 points, a combined total from 13 goals, and 14 assists. Additionally, aside from Brock Boeser, Höglander boasted a better plus-minus and even-strength goal total than the other top five point earners on the Canucks (Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and Nils Höglander).
Höglander’s stats sit in good company on the leaderboards this year, and he did it all with a significantly lower average TOI than his high-ranking teammates. In fact, Brandon Sutter, who earned 12 points in 43 games played on the year, is the only other player in the top 10 of Canucks production who had a lower average TOI than Höglander, and not by much.
Sutter cracked an average TOI of 15:05 on the year, whereas Höglander sat with 15:27 by the end of the season. Nils’s average deployment was a far cry from his top six teammates, with Boeser, Miller, and Horvat all in the 18-22 TOI range.
Höglander’s point per game pace this season even rivals that of the first two seasons of the Canucks’ Captain. If this was an 82 game season Höglander would’ve been on pace for 40 points by the end of it. In Bo Horvat’s first season with the Canucks he played 68 games and earned 25 points, putting him at a 30 point pace if he played the whole 82 games. The following year Horvat did play all 82 and finished with an even 40 points.
This isn’t to say that Höglander is on a point trajectory that will take him straight to the moon next season, but when a second-round pick enters the NHL and outpaces the first two career seasons of that team’s current captain, that’s not too bad at all. Even if Höglander didn’t end up scoring his lacrosse goal this season. Though, for no lack of trying of course.
This Guy is Just Fun to Watch
Höglander’s got an excitement to his playing style that single-handedly saved the viewing experience of Canucks games many times this season. It’s dangerous to hang too much hope on one player, but when a prospect exceeds expectations like this, it has a rejuvenating effect on one’s faith in the whole system.
Maybe there are more diamonds hiding just out of sight in this organization, and maybe just maybe the future isn’t so dark? This feeling of sudden and unbounded optimism around a prospect was on display to a lesser extent towards the end of this season as well. With many fans clamoring for more meaningful deployment for Jack Rathbone after the 22-year-old’s first few games as a Canuck.
The bottom line is, Höglander has performed exceptionally well in his first NHL season, and with that performance, comes the hope of even more responsibility for the young player in the following seasons. One major desire of fans for next season is to have Höglander see overtime minutes.
With OT becoming less exciting and more conservative league-wide, it’s understandable that coaches would want reliable puck management from their players in post-60-minute situations. But that’s just it… Höglander is reliable and has shown fantastic puck management, not to mention his passing ability which has often gone unparalleled by his teammates.
Those two attributes are key for producing OT scoring chances, and since Höglander has demonstrated his prowess in both areas, the coaching staff would be foolish to not unleash him in OT next season.
Regardless of what new chances come Höglander’s way next season, the fact still remains that the Canucks have something special in the young Swedish player. Fans can just only hope that he won’t be the only exciting thing to watch during Canucks games next year.