By: Brayden Fengler / September 22, 2021
So far, it’s looking like another promising season for the Canucks’ returning Swedish sophomore. Nils Höglander was undoubtedly amazing last year, especially when compared to the overall performance of the team. However, it may be a good idea for Canucks fans to prepare themselves for the idea of a less productive and potentially less exciting season from the hockey player newly numbered as #21.
Last season, Höglander as a rookie, was given a great deal more opportunity in the top-six than he likely would’ve been given in a non-COVID ravaged season. The Canucks were lacking in their overall depth and Höglander’s ability to, at the very least hold his own on an NHL playing surface earned him a much higher role than what is usually advisable for players of his age and caliber.
Unless your last name is McDavid or Matthews, there is a real risk of being hung out to dry in a top-six role, during your first year in the NHL.
The mental game is huge in Hockey, and this goes doubly for the young and still developing players. The Canucks are fortunate that Höglander managed his responsibilities well, rather than the alternative of the young Sweed losing his confidence, if his initial outings as a Canuck did not go well.
With added depth heading into this season, the Canucks now have the ability, and almost the responsibility to ease the load on the still-developing 20-year-old. Höglander is currently projected as Bo’s left-wing, on the second line, but that could easily change, and if it needs to, Travis Green and company will likely have no fears in doing so, thanks to the new shape of the roster.
Last year Höglander needed to be on the second line, this year Höglander needs to show that he can be on the second line.
The Sophomore Slump
Sophomore slumps are not uncommon amongst NHL players. Notably, it’s been experienced by the likes of Patrik Laine, who struggled in the early parts of his second NHL season, and despite bouncing back in the latter half of that campaign, he has arguably failed to reach a level of consistency that he demonstrated in his rookie year.
On the Canucks side of that coin, Quinn Hughes arguably had himself a sophomore slump last season, in his second full (or close to full excluding pandemic exceptions) season in the NHL. Last season Quinn had an ever so slightly lower points per game total than in his 2019-20 campaign, but where he slipped the most was in his defensive game. Going from a -10 in his first season to a -24 in this past season, just to pick one stat.
Although the idea of a sophomore slump exists for a reason, because it can happen, there is also the chance that Höglander, if he does suffer from it, will bounce back. Or maybe like Brock Boeser, Höglander will avoid a slump altogether.
During Boeser’s sophomore year there was some thought about the Minnesota native taking a bit of a dip, however, nothing significant ended up being reflected on the score sheet at the end of his 2018-19 sophomore season.
Höglander on the Powerplay
Höglander will likely remain on the second power-play unit at the start of this upcoming season. Last season he walked away with one power-play point, by the duration of the 2021 campaign. There is currently no overwhelming reason that Höglander should stay on power-play-two, the role is still one that Hog needs to earn.
A notable player currently exempt from the Canucks projected power play lines, is newly acquired centreman Jason Dickinson. Dickinson is slated to take up the third centre role for the club and is currently the only top nine forward not listed on a powerplay unit. Realistically Dickinson isn’t chomping at the heels of Höglander’s PP2 role, but it would be naive to assume that he wouldn’t be a logical and easy replacement should Höglander’s production wane.
So far most of what’s been laid out in the paragraphs above has been done so almost under the assumption that Höglander’s performance will undoubtedly take a dip. Of course, this is not necessarily the case.
If there is anything to take away from the points listed above, it’s that the Canucks have options, options they didn’t have just a few months ago. Höglander looks to be climbing to the full potential of his projected ceiling, but progress is not always a straight line. If Höglander does begin to show signs of poor performance, Green may be wise to ease the youngster’s deployment sooner rather than later.
Höglander may benefit from some third-line deployment in the long run, as playing fewer matchup minutes can be a part of a players’ healthy development. Again unless your last name is McDavid or Matthews.
Even Strength Replacements
Another interesting wrinkle that points to Höglander’s ability to be swapped down to a lower line, is this year’s new highly praised rookie Vasily Podkolzin. Although being listed as a right-wing player, Podkolzin is also a left-handed shot just like Höglander.
In the event that Höglander needs to be given less deployment, there is the potential that Podkozin could simply swap spots with him if Podz is able to play on the left-wing. We know that Höglander is also comfortable on the right-wing, as he was positioned there many times last season.
Right below Höglander in the line-up is Tanner Pearson. Pearson who was just given a brand new three-year $3.25M AAV contract is still obviously an important piece to this Canucks team, at least if you ask Jim Benning, and likely Travis Green as well. An even easier swap out with Höglander would be swapping him out with Tanner Pearson.
Pearson has long been tasked with playing up and down the lineup, so this would be no strange task for him if he needed to change places with the 20-year-old rookie.
It’s up to Nils
This article is definitely not as “Go Canucks Go” as some of our previous pieces, but by no means is it an indictment on Höglander’s ability to succeed this season either. Best case scenario, the Hog is a force to be reckoned with this year and this article becomes a distant, negative memory.
However, in the event that #21 does take a dip in performance, Canucks fans should be able to rest knowing that the club now has a much better support system for the team and for Höglander, than they would’ve had if Höglander didn’t live up to his role last season.