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Canucks: Rookie Hoglander arrives as new-age power forward

February 18th, 2021 by Ben Kuzma

To those not in the know, the kid was a curiosity.

Nils Hoglander’s claim to hockey fame were lacrosse-style goals more suited to a side show than something that would announce his rookie arrival in the NHL.

And at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, measuring up to the rigours of the North American game — especially in this compacted season — would demand more than a bowling-ball willingness from the swift, strong and smart Swede to become a new-age power forward.

Instead of big and burly and an immovable presence, the 20-year-old Hoglander is hard to contain because the right winger can deliver a pinpoint pass as well as he can take one on the fly. Excellent edge work and considerable jam to excel in traffic have gained confidence from his linemates and the coaching staff.

Hoglander wasn’t only tied for third in rookie points after starting the scoring sequence on two goals Wednesday in a 5-1 triumph in Calgary, his strength and reliability in all zones is also remarkable. It’s a rarity for any rookie, and his seamless transition from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) is the product of skill and will.

Hoglander is also dominating other statistical categories to turn the curious into true-believers. His nine points (3-6) after 20 games were augmented by leading all rookies in even-strength points (nine), shots (41), take-aways (15) and second among first-year forwards in blocked shots (12).

“He’s got a lot of energy and is playing well,” Canucks coach Travis Green said of the 2019 second-round draft pick. “I like that he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself and he’s a worker. He doesn’t let up. When you have skill and combine work, good things are going to happen.

“I don’t sit and think where a rookie is going to end up in scoring, but the way he’s playing it doesn’t surprise me. He takes it a game at a time. He just comes to the rink every day and works hard. And he’s a student of the game, which is important for a young player.

“There are still subtle things in his game that we’re trying to teach from game-to-game, things in the neutral zone that he can clean up a little bit. But he’s very coachable. You have a lot of time for young players like that.”

That’s more than you’ll get out of Hoglander.

He doesn’t say much and is more challenged by the English language than adjusting to the smaller North American ice surface on a line with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. And that’s OK. His play does the talking.

Right now, it’s screaming superlatives because starting on the third line would have presented easier matchups. But he can play with better players and also make them better. How much better?

During a 5-1 win over Ottawa on Jan. 25, he had a clip-and-save moment to further cement his arrival. It started when Hoglander bolted through the neutral zone, put the puck off the side wall, raced to beat a defender and then executed a diving and sweeping pass to Pearson in the slot. The left winger connected for his first goal and a 3-1 lead.

“I just tried to get the puck through and he did good to score,” said Hoglander. “It feels good. It’s easy to play with real good players because they do good things all the time. I do my best every day and practise and play hard.

“If I do that, the points will be coming too. It feels better-and-better every game. I feel strong out there and heavy on the puck. I can battle. I know if I play with confidence, I’ll keep doing good.”

In a pre-season poll of Calder Trophy favourites, Hoglander wasn’t on the top 20 list of contenders. He then scored in his debut during a season-opening 5-3 win at Edmonton.

On Monday, he led his club with five shots and eight attempts in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames. On Wednesday, his long sideboards bank pass sprung Pearson for a breakaway and ensuing collision with goalie Jacob Markstrom. The dish was just another weapon in Hoglander’s arsenal.

“Hogs has been awesome,” marvelled Horvat. “Not only does he make plays, he works hard. And that’s the biggest thing. He takes care of his own end, too, and he’s just all over the ice. He’s a bit of a water bug out there. He’s constantly moving and getting in on the forecheck and he’s being rewarded for it.

“He’s added a lot to our line and the sky is the limit for him.”

Canucks scout Patrik Jonsson isn’t surprised by Hoglander’s ascension. Especially after the winger got a leg-up on his new teammates with 23 games in the SHL this season with Rogle BK Angelholm. He compiled 14 points (5-9) in 23 games before leaving for Vancouver.

“He has always played really hard, aggressive and strong on the puck in tight areas,” said Jonsson. “He has no fears. He loves the game so much and the confidence and skill are coming from there.”

Factor in coronavirus pandemic protocols and Hoglander hasn’t had the traditional social bonding with new teammates in a new city and country.

“We do check in with him regularly and, man, he just seems to have a smile on his face every day,” said Green.

It didn’t take long for Hoglander’s potential to surface.

In his debut, he shook off customary hacks and whack as a rite of NHL passage with a deft deflection of a Pearson shot.

“I couldn’t believe it when the puck went in,” he said. “It was a moment and I was so happy to see it go in and playing against the best players in the world. Of course, I was nervous for the first few shifts, but I just kept going from there.”

Hoglander has never been shy of pushing the offensive envelope. In his home country, his two lacrosse-style goals were labelled ‘The Zorrow.’

“When I was younger, I always liked to try crazy things with the puck and with the stick and just have fun with it,” said Hoglander. “I don’t know what I’m thinking when I do it — it just comes up in my head. And it works because I score on it.”

The first came during a SHL outing last October and the second in late December during his coming-out party at the 2020 world junior tournament where he amassed 11 points (5-6) in seven games to finish third in event scoring.

“It’s just part of this new generation of players,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning. “They can do so many different things with the puck, and they have so much confidence, that they can try and move like that.

“We’re going to see that more-and-more and it (puck) is almost like a soccer ball now — they can keep it up in the air. We knew he has quick hands and has obviously worked on it to pull it off.”

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