The Vancouver Canucks opened training camp in Whistler on Thursday split into three groups balanced with veterans, rookies and prospects. After head coach Bruce Boudreau teased the fact that he would be unveiling line combinations that he could use on opening night, that’s exactly what fans saw when the players took to the ice at the Meadow Park Sports Centre at various times throughout the day.
While they were spread out between the three groups, NHL-caliber lines of Tanner Pearson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser; Ilya Mikheyev, Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko; Vasily Podkolzin, Bo Horvat and Conor Garland; and finally Curtis Lazar, Jason Dickinson and Dakota Joshua were seen skating together. Someone noticeably missing from that lineup was third-year NHLer Nils Höglander. Instead, he was joined by countrymen Nils Aman and Linus Karlsson on a unit that looked primed for the home opener in Abbotsford rather than Vancouver.
So what happened to the plucky Swede to have him behind the eight ball and seemingly poised to debut in the American Hockey League (AHL) for the first time in his career? Let’s take a look at his journey so far and why the AHL might be the best thing for him right now.
Hoglander’s Surprising Rookie Season
Selected 40th overall by the Canucks in 2019, Höglander spent parts of two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with Rogle where he put up 14 goals and 30 points in 64 games. He also starred at the 2020 World Juniors accumulating 11 points in seven games en route to a bronze medal finish. Coming over to North America at the beginning of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, he surprisingly made the team out of training camp and finished with 13 goals and 27 points in 56 games along with five Calder Trophy votes (one third-place and four fourth-place).
Throughout the season, Höglander rarely strayed away from the top-six alongside Horvat playing 380:46 with him. He also spent time on the second-unit power play and was used as an injection of energy whenever then-coach Travis Green felt his team needed it. Basically, he was riding high and appeared to be on the path to becoming a forward like Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, as you could always count on a strong work ethic, intense forechecking and a motor that never stopped when it came to the Bockträsk native.
Hoglander Struggled in His Sophomore Season
Going into the 2021-22 campaign, Höglander had the confidence of Green as he highlighted the young Swede as one of his most important utility forwards heading into the season.
I’d like to keep Hög between 14-18 minutes and move him around to kickstart lines.
Early on, it seemed like Höglander was going to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump as he recorded two assists in the season opener against the Edmonton Oilers. Unfortunately, it took him 10 games to record his first goal and despite a solid stretch where he scored five goals in six games, could only generate five more over his next 44.
Thrown into the mix was a coaching change in December that brought in Boudreau, someone that did not have the benefit of seeing Höglander’s game up close during his rookie season. In essence, he was starting from scratch and ended up failing to gain the same trust and confidence Green had in him.
Citing problems with his defensive game, Boudreau started slashing Höglander’s ice time to the point that he was playing fourth-line minutes. In fact, from the time Green was fired, he saw it drop 2:14 on average and was even a healthy scratch a few times. The veteran bench boss also called him out in the media saying, “He’s got some scoring potential, but he needs to learn how to play the game…He’s still a young kid, quite frankly, and I don’t know, someday he might score 40 goals, but if you’re going to hover around the 20-goal mark, you better learn to play both ends of the ice…”
Then, after rebounding with two goals in six games – including one in his final game against the New Jersey Devils on March 15 – he was shut down due to an apparent groin injury. Eventually, he had surgery to repair the issue in April and missed the rest of the season. All in all, it was a disappointing end to an already disappointing sophomore campaign.
Hoglander Starting Behind the Eight Ball at Training Camp
Now healthy and hoping to embark on his third season in the NHL, Höglander will be in tough to make the Canucks opening day roster. It appears Boudreau’s trust in him has not changed as he’s put him on an AHL line with Karlsson and Aman. That’s not a bad duo to play with by any means, but it’s not a unit that looks ready to make an impact at the NHL level.
For Höglander to make the team even as an extra forward, he will have to score and showcase the same skillset that captured the hearts and minds of fans and coaches during his first training camp. He will also have to display better defensive instincts and make Boudreau confident enough to put him on the fourth line or force management to move someone in the projected top nine for help on the back end. Basically, he needs to harness his inner Burrows/Hansen (in their prime) and make it impossible for the Canucks to leave him off the roster when it is finalized in October.
Time in the AHL Could Be Good for Hoglander
Seeing that Höglander doesn’t require waivers, starting the 2022-23 season in the AHL isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He is only 21 years old after all, and sometimes players need a bit of time in a lower league despite showing well in their rookie season in the NHL. He will also be with skilled players – likely Aman and Karlsson on the top line – and could light up the league, which would only increase his confidence. Furthermore, he will be able to work with a head coach that has NHL experience in Jeremy Colliton to help him improve his overall two-way game, as it is that type of skillset that will keep him in the NHL playing regular minutes.
With the lines the Canucks have deployed to start training camp, it doesn’t look like Höglander is in their plans to start the season. For his sake and the fans who loved his game in his rookie season, hopefully, that is not a precursor to a trade for a right-hand shot like Ethan Bear or someone like him. His potential is still relatively untapped, so before the organization resorts to moving him to another team, they should try and develop him in the AHL. I have a feeling he will surprise everyone, just like he did in training camp before playing the entire 56-game 2020-21 season in the NHL.
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.