Canucks: How a lost Nils Hoglander found challenging path back to the NHL

‘I want to play in the NHL, but sometimes it’s good to go down (to the AHL) and learn and get more confidence. It looks good now because I feel a lot better.’ — Canucks winger Nils Hoglander

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The body language is different, and so is the tone.

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Nils Hoglander is noticeably relaxed and upbeat about what awaits this NHL season.

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The Vancouver Canucks winger, who was demoted in late December and then grew his feisty, fast and opportunistic game with the AHL affiliate in Abbotsford through the remainder of the 2022-23 season, has an insatiable thirst to improve.

He knows becoming a roster mainstay with the parent club is an everyday commitment.

Hoglander was one of the last players off the practice ice Tuesday at the University of B.C. because one-on-one instruction with Daniel Sedin was something he wasn’t gong to pass up.

“Yeah, some tips and tricks,” said a smiling Hoglander. “Small things I can be better on along the boards to win those battles. It’s important to win those pucks down low and that’s my game, too. I like when they (Sedins) come and talk — it helps a lot.”

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Hoglander, 22, became a talking point for the manner in which the 5-foot-9, 185-pound bowling ball winger learned that a professional career rarely has a straight-line trajectory. He didn’t cherish the demotion, but he put in the work and reaped the rewards.

Not that it was easy.

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Canucks winger Nils Hoglander celebrates a goal against the Ducks with Tanner Pearson in 2021. Photo by Orlando Ramirez /USA TODAY Sports

“Of course, when I got sent down the first day, it was like: ‘Ah, f–k,’” admitted Hoglander. “But at some point, you just have to realize to make the best of the situation and trust that they sent you down to get better.”

He turned just three goals and six assists in 25 games NHL games into more push and production and finished the AHL regulation season with 32 points (14-18) in 45 games. He added a playoff presence with six points (3-3) in six strong outings, which drew plenty of plaudits.

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“It helped a lot to play down there,” added Hoglander. “I want to play in the NHL, but sometimes it’s good to go down and learn and get more confidence, and it looks good now because I feel a lot better. I felt I had the puck a lot more, and when I do, I learned the game more. And I played more minutes, so it means everything.”

The good experience could have gone in a bad direction.

After all, the 2019 second-round draft choice had a solid rookie campaign in the next COVID-shortened season with 27 points (13-14) in 56 games. However, sophomore struggles and a groin injury in late March led to just 18 points (10-8) in 60 games.

The following season, former Canucks bench boss Bruce Boudreau didn’t really know what to make of Hoglander.

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The winger was a healthy scratch on five occasions by late November, and even aligning him with J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat seemed like more a short-term curiosity than a long-term fix.

When Hoglander was assigned to Abbotsford, it was the ultimate wake-up call.

 “There were some penalties there, but at the same time, he was on the line as far as his physical play and competitiveness,” said Abbotsford coach Jeremy Colliton. “I’d rather have a player like that and pull the reins, than trying to have to dial him up. You can win with guys like that.”

So, what did Hoglander learn?

“Managing the game and understanding certain situations where you can attack, or create something off the rush, or make something happen,” added Colliton. “It was his awareness, defensively, too. He did a good job of being locked in and understanding his responsibilities away from the puck.”

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Edmonton Oilers Ben Gleason (6) and Vancouver Canucks Nils Hoglander (21) battle for the puck behind the net during second period NHL preseason action on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Edmonton.
Edmonton Oilers Ben Gleason (6) and Vancouver Canucks Nils Hoglander (21) battle for the puck behind the net during second period NHL preseason action on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

Hoglander signed a two-year, two-way $2.2-million US extension in July. It was a reward for the effort, but also a “show us” deal to see if he can carry that AHL momentum back to the NHL. 

This is also his first exposure to Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet, and there is mutual admiration between the player and the bench boss. Hoglander can see the fire in Tocchet’s eyes to drive the Canucks to a higher level of competitiveness. It’s like Tocchet’s still a player.

“A really good coach,” said Hoglander. “You can see a guy who really wants it, because he wants to win so bad. He wants to be a part of it and he 100 per cent helps the guys to get better.”

Hoglander has been moved around the bottom six as Tocchet looks to find combinations that are going to work when it’s time to play for keeps.

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“I root for guys like Hoglander because I want to make him the best NHL player he can be,” said Tocchet. “That’s why I talk about being first on the forecheck, make sure you’re in the right positions, and then go and just play the game.

“The one thing he gives me is effort and his understanding that he wants to do it. Do we have to get his hockey I.Q. up? Of course, he’ll tell you that. He’s got to start hitting the net and getting more offence.

“But he’s checking the boxes with the other things. He’s first on the ice. He’s in the gym, and he has come here in great shape. I have an affection for guys who work hard.”

bkuzma@postmedia.com

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