VANCOUVER — During a five-on-five drill during Tuesday’s practice, which the Vancouver Canucks conducted with far more intensity and talent than they possessed in Sunday’s 10-0 pre-season embarrassment against the Calgary Flames, Nils Hoglander jolted Filip Hronek along the boards to separate his teammate from the puck.
It wasn’t quite the seismic wallop Hoglander delivered Sunday on Flames defenceman Dennis Gilbert while establishing body position on a forecheck. But Hronek didn’t appreciate getting shouldered into the boards and responded with a whack to the back of Hoglander, who zipped away to continue the drill.
“That was a good practice,” Hoglander declared later. “I think everyone was ready to go today. We need every day to be like this.”
Every day has been like this for Hoglander since the Canucks opened their National Hockey League training camp on Thursday.
Trying to re-establish himself as a Canuck after the first stage of his NHL career took what he hopes was a U-turn last season to Abbotsford and the American Hockey League, Hoglander has looked fast, sharp, fit and engaged since he arrived at camp and discovered he would fill in for injured winger Ilya Mikheyev on the top line beside Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko.
Hoglander has been everything a coaching staff wants to see from someone trying to make an NHL team. The Swede has been everything that Dakota Joshua, for instance, has not. A rugged winger and roster incumbent, Joshua was criticized Tuesday by coach Rick Tocchet, who said the 27-year-old needs to “pick it up” if he wants to make the Canucks.
Hoglander has also significantly outperformed Vasily Podkolzin, another young, talented winger trying to find his NHL footing. Heck, he has probably outperformed Pettersson, who is not only Hoglander’s centre but his landlord.
But Mikheyev is getting closer, literally and figuratively. The speedy two-way winger, a regular with Pettersson and Kuzmenko until his season ended last January with ACL surgery, partially participated in Tuesday’s practice at the University of British Columbia.
Mikheyev did not take contact, left the session early and did not speak to reporters.
“I know they had pretty good chemistry last year,” Hoglander told Sportsnet. “I just want to show that I can play there. But if not, I can play somewhere else. I think that’s what I want to show. You never know, people are always going to get hurt or something.
“Every year is an important camp. But I feel this year, I really want to show that I want to be a part of the team and ready from the start. Show that I’m going to be on the team this year and help the team to win.”
The team he helped win last season was the Abbotsford Canucks.
After spending his first 2 ½ seasons with the organization in the NHL, Hoglander was demoted to the AHL in December after exasperating previous Canuck coach Bruce Boudreau with misreads and poor decisions.
And unlike other prospects like Podkolzin and Nils Aman who were sent to Abbotsford for remedial work, Hoglander did not return to Vancouver but spent the rest of the season in the AHL where he was coached by Jeremy Colliton and counselled by Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
In July, Hoglander re-signed with the Canucks as a restricted free agent, accepting a two-year contract for one-way money at $1.1 million (US) per season.
After three professional seasons in North America, the Canucks’ second-round pick from 2019 is no longer exempt from waivers, which means he will probably be starting this season somewhere in the NHL even if it isn’t in Vancouver.
Despite his erratic path since leaving Sweden, Hoglander remains an important prospect and both he and the Canucks badly want to make things work in Vancouver.
“A lot of confidence, a lot better puck management,” Hoglander said when asked what he brought back from the AHL. “When I have (the puck) in different situations, I know what I’ve got to do with it.
“I want to play more physical, especially when I play with these two guys, Kuz and Elias. Win some puck battles; I know I can play physical, too. I think that I can bring that to a game. I feel a lot of confidence out there that, I think, is from last year being in the (AHL) playoffs. Down there, I think I built up a lot of confidence. I feel good.”
The C-word was the most common one used by Hoglander during Tuesday’s interview.
There has never been any doubt about his speed and raw talent. During the 56-game pandemic season early in 2021, Hoglander not only made the Canucks as a 20-year-old rookie but was one of the team’s best forwards, producing 13 goals and 27 points while averaging 15:27 of ice time for coach Travis Green.
But during his second season, when Boudreau replaced Green, Hoglander’s playing time and effectiveness declined and he managed just 10 goals and 18 points in 60 games before getting injured.
He had three goals in 25 games last season, averaging 12:03 for Boudreau, and is now trying to impress his third Canucks coach in Tocchet. The solid, five-foot-nine winger had 32 points in 45 AHL games last season before scoring three goals, two of them game-winners, and six points in six playoff games.
“I think everyone knows that (pandemic) season was a weird season for everyone,” Hoglander said. “I think last year when I had the chance in Abbotsford, I think I learned a lot. It might have been better if I started there (in the AHL) right away when I came, I don’t know. But I just think I learned a lot last year when I stayed there.
“It might have been better in my first year if I played a couple of games there. It is what is now. It has not been easy every day.”
But it sure seems to be getting better.
TOCCHET ROCKET: Asked about Podkolzin and Joshua being demoted to the Canucks’ second-tier practice group on Tuesday, Tocchet said: “(Podkolzin is) working his butt off. He’s just trying too hard, some of his reads. We’ve got to make sure we dial that in. And Dakota, he’s got to pick it up. Quite frankly -— I’m not going to get into some other factors — but he’s got to try to win a job. The job is not there. There are guys breathing down (his neck) that want jobs. There’s a lot of other factors that I’m not going to get into, but, yeah, he’s got to pick it.”
On Aman, the sophomore centre who is trying to win a roster spot after the Canucks signed bottom-six centres Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger in free agency, Tocchet said: “I think he was in our top three best-shape guys in camp. He came in bigger. He’s been skating hard. He deserves the opportunity to be in that situation (with the top group). We’re still two weeks away, but I’m a big fan of him.”
The Canucks will split their NHLers for road games Wednesday in Edmonton and Thursday in Seattle.