VANCOUVER – Birthdays are great until you realize most of yours have passed, and a cake with a candle for each year you’ve lived starts to feel like a vigil instead of a celebration.
But Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning had a 57th birthday on Wednesday that every NHL GM dreams about: a conference call with all of his favourite reporters, peppering him with questions about the prospect he just signed.
The Canucks signed Swedish winger Nils Hoglander, the 2019 second-round pick who is arguably the organization’s No. 2 prospect outside the NHL, to a three-year entry-level contract. Blow out the candles and make a wish.
“It’s a nice birthday present. . . knowing that he’s signed and we’ve got him under contract,” Benning said. “We feel like he’s going to be an important player for us.
“He’ll be a top-nine player and once he’s up and going, and after he has a year or two under his belt, I think he’ll be a top-six player for us. He’s going to have to learn to play on the smaller ice sheet. The players over here are going to be bigger and stronger, the defencemen are better. He’s going to have to adapt to the North American game. But the way he plays, and his courage level and stuff, I don’t think he’ll have a problem doing that.”
Benning didn’t rule out Hoglander, who is 20 years old and a sturdy five-foot-eight, making the Canucks next training camp – whenever that is. That seems unrealistic given the winger’s inexperience and modest production of nine goals and 16 points in 41 Swedish Hockey League games this season with Rogle BK.
But Hoglander, who would have been solidly positioned in the first round last June had he been two inches taller, is capable of extraordinary things.
He scored the SHL’s goal-of-the-season last October with a “lacrosse goal” in which he won the puck against six-foot-three veteran defenceman Marcus Hogstrom, banked it to himself off the back of the net and then lifted the puck on to his blade to sling in a goal against Djurgardens.
To prove it was no fluke, Hoglander then scored a less spectacular lacrosse goal for Sweden against Finland at the world junior championship, which the winger dominated until he took a major penalty and game misconduct for elbowing Russian captain Grigori Denisenko in the semifinals.
It was the same elbow Hoglander used to injure Lulea defenceman Fredrik Styrman near the start of the season in Sweden.
Hoglander is no ordinary under-sized winger.
At nearly nearly 190 pounds, he’s actually not very small.
“I’ve always loved to win, always loved to win the puck and win the battle,” Hoglander said in a call from Sweden, where the country’s lack of restrictions during COVID-19 means Rogle has continued to train. “And don’t be scared to go into the battle, too. Of course, I need to have a heads-up with my elbow there; that’s not good from my side. (But) I’m not the biggest guy. I need to go in with my body and win the puck against bigger men.”
Rogle general manager Chris Abbott, who is from Sarnia, Ont., told Sportsnet there are no issues with Hoglander’s strength.
“He has been playing against men since he was 17 years old,” Abbott said. “When he first came in for testing, Nils blew us away. The kid was a freak physically. It’s unheard of for a 17-year-old to lead testing in a room full of guys who look like underwear models. He can handle himself along the boards and in tight his game is elite.”
It’s Hoglander’s combativeness and fearlessness, in addition to his stick skills, that have the Canucks excited about him.
He said he knows what lacrosse is, even though Swedes refer to his highlight move as the “Zorro goal.”
“When I was younger, I always liked to try crazy things with the puck and the stick, and just have fun,” Hoglander explained. “I take that out to the ice, too. I don’t know what I think when I do it; it just comes up in my head (and) it works. I score on it.”
“It’s just part of this new generation of players,” Benning said of Hoglander’s audaciousness. “They can do so many different things with the puck. They’ve got so much confidence in being able to do a move like that and try a move like that. As we keep going forward, we’re going to see that more and more. We know he’s got good hands, we know he’s got quick hands.”
What they don’t know is when Hoglander will be NHL-ready.
Elias Pettersson, a fifth-overall pick who was the SHL’s most valuable player in 2018, came to the Canucks and won the Calder Trophy. He was an instant star in Vancouver. But another Swedish scoring phenom, Pettersson’s close friend Jonathan Dahlen, was a bust in North America and made a U-turn home to play soon after the Canucks traded the first-rounder to the San Jose Sharks.
The transition to the NHL is difficult.
“Of course everyone knows it’s hard to play in the NHL, and to go from the SHL and the Swedish League to NHL is hard,” Hoglander said. “That’s my goal – to play in Vancouver. It’s a smaller rink in the NHL than we have here, and it can be better for me to play on a small ice. I’m excited.”
“I think his skillset in tight, one on one, is elite,” Abbott said. “He’s a small-town kid who’s so much fun to be around. He wants to be a hockey player. His humbleness and determination …you’ll see it in his eyes when you meet him. I wouldn’t bet against him.”