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Harnessing “Hoagie” Höglander for the Canucks

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Nils Höglander shoots and scores against the Winnipeg Jets on December 10th.

It’ll be fun to see what Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Bruce Boudreau can do with Canucks energizer forward Nils Höglander. Or at least it’ll be fun trying. Apparently “Hoagie” used to drive former head coach Travis Green a little bit crazy. All the parts are there, now someone just needs to read the instruction manual.

It’s in Swedish.

Höglander could be described as a whirling dervish: A person displaying a huge, boundless amount of energy. The key is channelling that energy for the maximum benefit of the hockey club.

“I think he’s got some great offensive talent, I just want him to learn a little bit more of how to play when he doesn’t have the puck,” Boudreau said after practice Monday. “I think sometimes he’s a really skilled guy who wants to do … wants to score, but this is a game … if he’s gonna play with Bo Horvat he’s got to be responsible defensively as well because usually that line plays against the other team’s best line when we can do it.”

“Gabby” almost uttered the old hockey cliche “he wants (or tries) to do too much,” and stopped himself. He wouldn’t be wrong. Offensively, Höglander will still try to make the blind drop pass in the neutral zone while moving east-west, he might hold the puck too long while clearing, or it might just be his brain can’t keep up with his legs.

“I look to myself when I first got in the league, it was hard,” said Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “Everything was new and you don’t really understand everything that your coach or teammates are saying.”

Höglander’s English isn’t the best and one-on-one chats are unavailable at the moment, so we’re doing this story with him in absentia.

“I think just having a couple Swedes on the team helps him out a lot and we’re trying to help him out on the ice,” Ekman-Larsson continued, “but we know that he’s always going to work hard and that’s one thing that I like about him. No matter what day it is or how he’s feeling, he’s always going to give 100-percent out there.”

There are times when his enthusiasm or desire seems to take him out of position. Coach and player had a one-on-one meeting on Monday.

“We went over some stuff in the room just to get him to understand, sometimes there’s a language barrier,” Boudreau said, “but you can see that he’s really skilled, he got 13 goals last year and was probably on his way to a 20-goal season if it was a regular season.”

Don’t forget, Höglander just turned 21 a week ago. The Canucks 2nd-round pick in 2019 has seven goals and five assists in 31 games played this season. His tenacious nature has him playing with Horvat in the middle and, as of late, Jason Dickinson or Tyler Motte on the opposite wing. They’re legitimate counter-attackers.

His Corsi rating is at 55% (even-strength team shot attempts while on the ice, versus shot attempts against) and his expected goals (shot quality value) number is seven, the 7th best number on the Canucks. The stat I find apropos, given his quickness and craftiness, is his high-danger unblocked shot chances (9), third on the team behind only JT Miller and Horvat. Hoagie isn’t afraid to put himself into scoring positions.

“If we can get him to know the other side of the game, defending, then he’ll be a really, really good asset to this team,” Boudreau said.

We’ve seen what collective confidence can do for the Canucks and we know what confidence can do for an individual. Höglander was feeling it for a few days in mid-November with five points, four of them goals, in a three game stretch. His other little outburst came with a two-goal game on December 10th against Winnipeg.

Harnessing the language will lead to bigger opportunities for Hoagie and harnessing his education will give Boudreau a deadly two-way weapon.

It’s a learning curve.

“I think he’s going to be really good for a long time,” Ekman-Larsson said.

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