Just over a minute into the second period, Nils Höglander deftly banks the puck off the boards to himself in the neutral zone with one hand on his stick, gaining the offensive zone with ease. Along the boards, he fights off the check of the 6’6” defenceman, then drives to the front of the net, cutting through three defenders, then finishes off his own rebound to open the scoring.
It was a fantastic goal by the pint-sized power forward to open the scoring for the Canucks in Game 1 of the playoffs and exactly the type of play that fans might have hoped to see when Höglander made his NHL debut in the 2020-21 season.
The only issue is that the goal didn’t come in the NHL. Instead, Höglander opened the scoring for the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
It was part of a two-point night for Höglander as he led Abbotsford to a 3-0 win over the Bakersfield Condors in Game 1.
"He didn't have confidence, he didn't have trust."
Höglander was sent down to the AHL in December after 9 points in 25 NHL games to start the season. The timing of the demotion seemed a little odd, not only because he was sent down on his 22nd birthday but also because he seemed to be finding his game again, with four points in his last five games before being sent down.
There were reasons for the timing, however. One was that the Canucks wanted to have a roster spot available to call up defenceman Travis Dermott after a conditioning stint in Abbotsford as he rehabbed from his preseason concussion.
The other reason is that general manager Patrik Allvin truly believed that Höglander needed to spend some time in the AHL and he was running out of waiver exemption. If Höglander played two more NHL games last season, he would have to clear waivers in order to be assigned to the Abbotsford Canucks.
“At the point where we had to make a decision, [Höglander] was in and out of the lineup, played in every position,” said Allvin on Monday. “You know, he didn't have confidence, he didn't have trust walking in here.”
Höglander, before the demotion, admitted that his confidence wasn't where he wanted it to be.
"I feel like I can play with more confidence. I don’t really have my confidence," he said to CanucksArmy's Chris Faber. "I will have it but sometimes you need to work through that."
He was asked to work through it in the AHL.
"The National Hockey League is not a development league."
It seemed that Höglander had already established himself as an NHL forward in his rookie year in the 2020-21 season. He was one of the few bright spots for the Canucks, finishing with 13 goals and 27 points in 56 games, even earning a handful of votes for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
His game took a step back in his second season. He was still driving play offensively but he managed just 18 points in 60 games. His touch in what soccer would call the final third was missing, as he struggled to both setup and finish chances.
Beyond his finishing issues, Höglander’s defensive game was questioned, as he struggled with missed assignments in the defensive zone.
“He's got some scoring potential, but he needs to learn how to play the game,” said then-head coach Bruce Boudreau. “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.”
Höglander’s struggles continued this season and Allvin believed that a lack of development time in the AHL was a major reason.
“I think Nils was put in a tough situation here,” said Allvin. “He was a young kid that made the Vancouver Canucks right out of training camp during the COVID year. It's very seldom we see guys not playing one American League hockey game and I think the National Hockey League is not a development league.”
It was a tough moment for a talented young player. Not only was he no longer in the NHL, battling to turn the Canucks’ season around, but he got a significant pay cut: from $832,500 per year in the NHL to $70,000 per year in the AHL.
"His buy-in has been excellent."
Höglander took the demotion in stride, taking it as an opportunity to work on his complete game with Abbotsford head coach Jeremy Colliton and his staff, including Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who frequently traveled to Abbotsford to work one-on-one with the players on the ice.
“What we’re trying to prepare our guys for here is that you try to lay down habits and a base of their game so that when the adrenaline wears off they’re pros, and contribute to winning at the NHL level sustainably, not just for a three-or-four-game stint,” said Colliton to The Athletic’s Thomas Drance. “That’s the case for Nils, too. He could get called up and he’d be great for a few games, but can he help them win and not just for a short stint, but for a full season? That’s the level we’re trying to get him to.”
That has been one of the question marks for Höglander. He was great in his rookie season, but that was a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and he came in already in midseason form after starting the year in Sweden. How much was that rookie season a product of those unique circumstances?
The goal is to turn Höglander into a truly impactful player for the Canucks long-term and Höglander bought in to the vision. While working on his all-around game, he found his confidence again, putting up 32 points in 45 games in a second-line role.
“From the time he came to us, his work understanding the defensive zone, the wall plays and managing the game at the offensive and defensive blue line, he’s really dialled in,” said Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson to Drance. “I give him credit, his attitude has been great and his buy-in has been excellent.”
"We're very excited about Nils."
Höglander’s ability to drive puck possession was already valuable at the NHL level. Even last season when he was struggling to score, he led the Canucks with a 53.32% corsi and was on the ice for the highest rate of high-danger chances for the Canucks at 5-on-5.
If Höglander can add a more refined defensive game and more confidence in his finish to that already strong base, he could be incredibly valuable to the Canucks next season.
He showed just how valuable in Game 1 for Abbotsford. Beyond the points, Höglander won battles along the boards, harangued opponents on the forecheck, and made not just the highlight-reel plays that landed the puck in the back of the net, but smart plays to maintain possession and keep the puck moving in the right direction.
It’s almost a guarantee that Höglander will be back in Vancouver to start next season. First of all, he’ll be eligible for waivers, and the Canucks don’t want to risk losing him after investing so much time in his development. Second of all, based on how he’s developed this season, he’s likely to make it incredibly easy for the Canucks to keep him up in the NHL.
“I think as an organization, we're very excited about Nils and his process down in Abbotsford — his mindset and his commitment to playing the right way down there,” said Allvin, adding, “We believe in Nils. He's a young good hockey player and I'm excited to see what he can do in a playoff environment in Abbotsford.”
If Game 1 was any indication, he’s going to do absolutely everything.