Happy Birthday, Nils Höglander. Have a demotion and a pay cut.
Technically, the Vancouver Canucks sent Höglander down to their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford one minute before his birthday on December 20. The Canucks made the announcement at 11:59 p.m. on Monday night after their game against the Winnipeg Jets, just before the NHL’s holiday roster freeze kicked in at midnight.
Höglander was a healthy scratch for that game, which seemed odd. Just two games prior, Höglander was arguably the team’s best player in a win over the Calgary Flames, thriving on a line with fellow short kings Conor Garland and Sheldon Dries.
But that line was broken up for the Canucks’ next game as head coach Bruce Boudreau scrambled the lines with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser out of the lineup due to illness. Now Höglander won’t be in the Canucks’ lineup at all, joining fellow young players Vasily Podkolzin and Jack Rathbone in Abbotsford.
The roster freeze extends to December 28, though players can be called up from the minors during that time, so Höglander could return to Vancouver at any time. But why was he sent down in the first place?
Höglander has more points at 5-on-5 than Garland
One argument might be that Höglander isn’t scoring. After all, he has just 9 points in 25 games, 10th on the team in scoring.
But there are a few reasons why that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Höglander was actually heating up in recent games, with 4 points in 5 games before he was sent down, despite limited ice time.
Also, all of Höglander’s points have come at 5-on-5, where he has just one fewer point than J.T. Miller and one more point than Conor Garland. He doesn’t have any points on the power play, but then again, he’s averaged just 15 seconds per game on the power play this season, so it doesn’t really like that’s his fault.
Keep in mind, Höglander has played six fewer games than Miller and five fewer games than Garland and averages much less ice time per game than either player. And yet, their 5-on-5 production has basically been the same this season.
It would certainly be nice if Höglander was scoring more but, let’s be honest, scoring hasn’t really been the issue for the Canucks this season and it’s tough to expert more scoring out of a forward who’s averaging just 12 minutes per game this season and has been bounced around the lineup with no consistent linemates.
Defence, however, is an issue for the Canucks and that’s still one of Höglander’s primary weaknesses. Boudreau has harped on this in the past.
“He's got some scoring potential, but he needs to learn how to play the game,” said Boudreau last season. “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.”
The Canucks have been outscored 16-to-13 with Höglander on the ice at 5-on-5, which isn’t great but it’s also not that bad given that the Canucks as a whole are 27th in the NHL in 5-on-5 goal differential. There are several players on the Canucks with worse defensive metrics — the aforementioned Sheldon Dries, for example — and Höglander is certainly not the only Canuck who has made some significant defensive mistakes this season.
It just seems strange to single out Höglander when so many other Canucks forwards have been just as bad or worse and Höglander has shown some jump in recent games.
Waiver exemption and Travis Dermott
There is one difference between Höglander and most other Canucks forwards, however. He doesn’t have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL.
That’s likely the biggest reason why Höglander was sent down just before the NHL’s roster freeze. The only other two forwards on the Canucks roster who are exempt from waivers are Andrei Kuzmenko — who definitely isn’t being sent down — and Nils Åman, who has been a mainstay at centre for Boudreau.
So why does that matter? After all, the Canucks didn’t have to send anyone down; they were at the 23-man roster limit, 22 now with Höglander in the AHL.
The Canucks have, however, sent Travis Dermott down to the Abbotsford Canucks on a conditioning stint. If they want to call Dermott up at any point in the next week — and they desperately need him back in the lineup — they need to have space available on the roster.
Dermott hasn’t played a game this season after suffering a concussion during training camp but he’s been back on the ice skating for a couple of weeks.
The Abbotsford Canucks have games on both Tuesday and Wednesday, so that will be a good test for Dermott to ensure that he’s fully recovered. If the Canucks want to bring him back up to Vancouver after those games, Höglander’s demotion leaves a roster spot open for him.
That's why the timing makes sense for Höglander to be sent down now, even as he's starting to score
Perhaps this demotion is the best birthday present possible for Höglander. As much as he’s proven he can play in the NHL, a stint in the AHL where he can play top-line minutes to regain some confidence and work on his two-way game could be just what the doctor ordered.
Frankly, keeping young players like Höglander, Podkolzin, and Rathbone out of the disastrous environment in Vancouver might be for the best.