How Nils Hoglander Forced the Vancouver Canucks’ Hand

The Vancouver Canucks’ opening-night lineup was utterly baffling.

Alex Chiasson, who converted a professional tryout into a one-year, $750,000 contract, somehow landed on the top unit alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller. Tanner Pearson, an offensively limited winger who has made a habit of holding Bo Horvat back, was slotted next to Vancouver’s captain once again.

Meanwhile, promising sophomore winger Nils Höglander began the year on the third line and highly touted 2019 10th overall pick Vasily Podkolzin was asked to earn his stripes on the fourth line.

Hoglander’s deployment was especially strange considering his solid rookie campaign (27 points in 56 games). Last season, he ranked first among Canucks forwards in scoring chances, expected goals and actual goals at 5-on-5. Nevertheless, head coach Travis Green decided to partner him with defensive center Jason Dickinson. More notably, he was sitting below a 31-year-old journeyman (Chiasson) and a declining utility player (Pearson) on the depth chart.

Each line in the top six was saddled with an albatross. It was almost like these units were specifically designed to fail.

You could argue that the coaching staff was looking to teach Hoglander how to play the “right” way, but he was already fiercely competitive and effective as a freshman:

To virtually no one’s surprise, these ill-conceived lines yielded poor results. The Canucks fell 3-2 to the Edmonton Oilers in their season opener, and despite Pettersson’s best efforts, the top six was clearly short on ideas and execution. Chiasson and Pearson simply aren’t cut out for prominent roles.

Hoglander, for his part, dazzled on a line with grinders Dickinson and Matthew Highmore. Even in a contest headlined by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Quinn Hughes and Pettersson, the 20-year-old managed to stand out with his pace and attacking instincts.

That didn’t sway Green—at least not immediately. For their second outing of the year against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Canucks promoted a shaky Podkolzin to the first line. Philly jumped out to an early lead as Vancouver’s new top unit floundered. Pettersson, Miller and Podkolzin controlled just 20.0% of the shot attempts before Green sent the rookie to the bottom six alongside Juho Lammiko and Justin Dowling.

It was a masterclass in how to ruin a kid’s confidence. But it was also Hoglander’s turn now.

Vancouver’s first line dictated the action over the remainder of the contest, owning 75.0% of the shot attempts, 75.0% of the scoring chances and 92.7% of the expected goals. They also squeaked in a go-ahead marker in the second frame.

Just two games in, there was no denying Hoglander’s impact. His vision and touch—even under pressure—are sublime. Watch how he always finds a way to buy time and complete a pass:

Better yet, he looks even more dynamic than last season. He’s quicker and more confident in his ability to evade defenders, whether that’s down low or when he’s flying through the neutral zone. He’s yet to find the back of the net, but he’s consistently tilting the ice and generating opportunities for himself and his linemates. And he often does so in electrifying fashion:

He’s distributing the puck crisply and taking the bulk of his shots from prime real estate, seldom wasting any touches. His high motor and hockey sense are plain to see every time he takes the ice.

Through three games, he’s tied with Horvat for the lead in scoring chances among Canucks forwards. He, Pettersson and Miller are running roughshod over the opposition, posting a 66.7 CF%, 66.7 SCF%, 100.0 HDCF%, 76.7 xGF% and 100.0 GF% in their even-strength shifts together. And that’s with Miller laying an egg to start the season.

Since Hoglander applies his boundless energy to the defensive side as well, there isn’t any aspect of his game for the coaching staff to nitpick. Standing at just 5’9” and weighing 185 pounds, he nevertheless uses his speed and smarts to disrupt puck-carriers and flip possession:

In short, he’s given Green every reason to trust him and no reason to question that decision.

Though he may not boast the pure finish to ever reach star status, he’s already a reliable pro who makes good decisions and puts his teammates in great spots. At the very least, he can provide Ondrej Palat-like contributions as a three-zone facilitator and worker bee with offensive upside. If he can fully realize his potential, which is certainly likelier in the top six than in the bottom six, the Canucks will have another legitimate talent to work with.

That’s a valuable piece to field alongside the likes of Pettersson, Miller, Horvat, Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Thatcher Demko.

Brock Boeser, who was nursing an undisclosed injury, is slated to join the lineup on Tuesday night against the Buffalo Sabres. Green has selected the sniper and…Hoglander as Pettersson’s wingers. Miller is expected to center Podkolzin on the third unit.

There’s no telling how long Green can resist the temptation of reuniting the Lotto Line. If Vancouver gets off to a slow start, he may return to what he knows. Maybe that’s for the best in the long run too because those three have shown wonderful chemistry in the past. Moreover, Hoglander might fit more comfortably as a second-liner at the moment.

For now, however, he’s rocketed up the depth chart in a mere three games. The Canucks may not have expected this, but his strong all-around performances have given them no real choice in the matter.

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